The Finns describe them as the ‘poor man’s pharmacy’ and now researchers have proved that saunas are indeed beneficial to health.
Scientists have found that the dry heat of a sauna does more than work up a sweat, it can actually prolong life, cutting the risk of a heart attack for middle-aged men by up to 63 per cent.
However study authors from University of Eastern Finland said were unsure what was driving the heart health boost.
“Further studies are warranted to establish the potential mechanism that links sauna bathing and cardiovascular health,” said lead author Dr Jari Laukkanen, who published the research in the journal Jama Internal Medicine.
Sauna ‘bathing’ has taken place in Finland for thousands of years. The first settlers dug holes in the ground and filled them with hot stones which they sprinkled with water to give off a steam known as a ‘loyly.’ It was said each sauna had a distinctive ‘loyly’ with an individual character.
A Finnish proverb states that “If a sick person is not cured by tar, spirits or sauna, then they will die” and until recently women gave birth in saunas, because they were viewed as the cleanest room in the house.
A normal sauna is kept at around 158-176 degrees Fahrenheit and intriguingly, ‘Sauna’ is the only Finnish word to be included in everyday English.
The study was conducted among 2,315 men aged 42 to 60 from eastern Finland, who were monitored over 21 years.
During the follow-up period they recorded 190 sudden cardiac deaths, 281 fatal cases of coronary heart disease, 407 deaths from cardiovascular disease and 929 deaths from “all causes”.
However those who had used saunas regularly seem to have been protected from heart problems.
The risk of sudden cardiac death was found to be 22 per cent lower for men who had two to three sauna sessions per week and 63 per cent lower for those visiting a sauna four to seven times a week.
A similar pattern was seen for coronary heart disease, with two to three sessions reducing the risk of death by 23 per cent and four to seven sessions by 48 per cent.
Cardiovascular disease death rates were cut by 27 per cent when men made two to three visits and by 50 per cent when they made four to seven.
Dr Rita Redberg, from the University of California and editor of Jama Internal medicine said: “Although we do not know why the men who took saunas more frequently had greater longevity (whether it is the time spent in the hot room, the relaxation time, the leisure of a life that allows for more relaxation time, or the camaraderie of the sauna), clearly time spent in the sauna is time well spent.”
Participants also benefited if they spent longer in the sauna. Compared with men staying hot for less than 11 minutes, those whose sessions lasted 11 to 19 minutes were 7 per cent less likely to suffer a sudden cardiac death while more than 19 minutes was associated with a 52 per cent reduced risk.
Previous studies have shown that saunas can lower your blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, assist diabetes and lung conditions, and even fight off the common cold and help combat anorexia.
Some athletes use saunas to increase their endurance by expanding their oxygen capacity, red blood cell count and plasma volumes. And plunging into a cold pool after a sauna can build up the body’s antioxidant powers and boost the immune system.