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Frequent saunas are about more than just being extra clean

There's mounting evidence that taking a sauna several times a week often can even prevent mental health and memory problems.

Saara Lehtonen lämmittää saunaa.
File photo of Saara Lehtonen firing up a Christmas Eve sauna in Helsinki's Meilahti neighbourhood in 2016. Image: Jouni Immonen / Yle
Yle News

Sauna is a very popular tradition in Finland, but the ritual also has significant health benefits, as taking regular saunas are known to reduce the risk of heart disease and offer other health benefits, as well.

Many households in the Nordic country head to the sauna on Christmas Eve, as the holiday season has been considered a time for resting, eating and cleaning oneself.

Sauna has been an essential part of everyday life for many Finns for countless generations--so much so that the practice was just added to UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage List last week.

The first, however questionable, research regarding sauna's health benefits were carried out in 1765 by Swedish physician Anton R. Martin, who suggested that the Nordic bathing ritual caused eyelash growth and could stretch the human body's length by an inch.

Alas Martin's findings have since been rejected, but research into the topic has continued and evidence is mounting that taking frequent saunas really does improve people's well being.

A study published by the University of Eastern Finland in early 2018 found new evidence regarding sauna's beneficial cardiovascular effects. The study's head researcher, Jari Laukkanen explored physiological mechanisms like changes in blood pressure and circulation that take place in the human body as a result of sauna.

Story continues after photo.

Sauna jossa vesikiulu ja -kauha
A wooden bucket holds the water that is splashed on the hot rocks of the sauna stove, which fills the sauna with 'löyly', or steam, which is an essential ritual in the art of sauna. Image: Sirkka Haverinen / Yle

1. Mental health, memory benefits

Regular sauna use has been shown to prevent even serious mental health and memory problems.

Laukkanen said that men who take a sauna four to seven times per week, for at least 20 minutes every session, were up to 78 percent less likely to experience psychotic symptoms than those who headed to the sauna less than once a week.

People's memory also benefits from regular sauna use, according to a study that tracked middle-aged men for about two decades, Laukkanen explained.

"The risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease was reduced by up to 66 percent in those who often used the sauna," he explained, but noted that exactly how the Finnish bathing tradition affects the brain was still not clear.

2. Cardio workout

The steamy baths are also good for the heart, according to Laukkanen.

"When you take a sauna the heart rate rises to as high as 120-150 beats per minute, which corresponds to low or medium-level endurance exercise, in terms of circulatory system load," he said, explaining that the high temperature makes blood circulate more efficiently and improves the flexibility of blood vessels.

Saunas are also known to reduce the risk of coronary disease, he noted.

3. Relieves muscle pain

There's a reason saunas are commonly found at gyms, as the heat is known to help relieve muscle pain and tension.

In some cases, saunas are also useful in relieving headaches, arthritis and the chronic pain suffered by people with fibromyalgia.

However, Laukkanen noted there is a danger that the heat can sometimes worsen the pain of such maladies.

4. Boosts immunity

Laukkanen said that, in addition to the use of vitamins and diligent hand washing, frequent saunas were also a good way to keep the common cold at bay, noting that even more severe maladies like bronchitis, pneumonia and even asthma were less common among frequent sauna-goers.

However, it remains unclear whether sauna is the sole factor of the apparent increase in resistance to the flu. Laukkanen said that more research is needed on the topic.

5. Improves the skin

One might think that sweating it out in a sauna could cause dry skin but the opposite has been found to be true.

While there is no empirical evidence to suggest saunas could help alleviate skin problems in general, Laukkanen said individuals with psoriasis have seen improvement with help from the sauna.

6. Relaxation and good feelings

People who have noted a relaxed state of mind following a stint in the steam box are not alone.

"Scientifically it is very difficult to assess the state of relaxation, but as heart rate variability increases, it indirectly indicates that the heart's autonomic nervous system improves and helps the body to relax," Laukkanen said.

That state of relaxation may well be an important factor behind many of the health benefits of frequent visits to the sauna, he explained.

Laukkanen noted that some people who sauna regularly may also perceive an increase in their quality of life, but said it is unclear whether sauna was the direct cause or a consequence of such feelings.

Almost anyone, regardless of their physical condition, can take a sauna without hesitation, he said, but noted that some illnesses could be problematic.

"In general, the chronically ill can take saunas, as long as their conditions are well-treated. Those conditions can include severe heart valve failure, low blood pressure, untreated chest pain or other serious illness," he explained, adding that people unsure about their ability to take a sauna in terms of their health should seek medical advice from a physician.

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