Spending 25 minutes in a sauna may increase your heart rate and blood pressure to a similar extent as doing a short moderate workout, say German sports scientists. Writing in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine, researchers from the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenburg and the Medical Center Berlin believe they’ve disproved the idea that visiting a sauna makes your blood pressure fall – which is why people with low blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems are often advised not to use them.

They took 19 volunteers, whose blood pressure and heart rate were measured during a 25-minute sauna session. The volunteers’ blood pressure and heart rates rose immediately when they were in the sauna, then dropped again afterwards (their post-sauna blood pressure and heart rates were lower than that measured before they went in the sauna).

Then they measured their blood pressure and heart rates again, this time while using an exercise bike. And what do you know, they both rose to the same levels as during the sauna session. That, the researchers say, shows that having a sauna puts a physical strain on the body – though they add that sweating in a sauna doesn’t help you lose weight because there’s no muscle activity, and any weight you may lose is just fluids.

Saunas have previously been linked with health benefits. Finnish researchers have showed that using a sauna may help you live longer. Their study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, found that men who used a sauna two or three times a week had a 24 per cent lower risk of mortality associated with all causes, which increased to 40 per cent lower in those who had a sauna four to seven times a week. The same study suggests having two or three saunas a week could make you 27 per cent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease (having four to seven sauna sessions was linked with a 50 per cent lower risk of fatal cardiovascular disease).

And another study yet again involving Finnish men suggests using a sauna four to seven times a week may lower your risk of dementia by 66 per cent and Alzheimer’s disease by 65 per cent compared with those who use a sauna once a week (this particular study was published in the journal Age and Ageing).

Proteins and genes

According to longevity and optimal health expert Dr Rhonda Patrick, this may have something to do with substances called heat shock proteins (HSPs), which help maintain correct cell structure when cells are under stress. She says it’s been shown that regular sauna use results in the production of more HSPs under normal conditions and even more under stressful conditions such as cell and tissue injury – and this is a good thing, since our bodies produce fewer HSPs as we get older.

A gene called FOXO3 may also play a part in the sauna effect, adds Dr Patrick. FOXO3 is a gene activated by heat stress, such as that associated with sauna use. Want to know more about FOXO3? Read this study in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), which states FOXO is ‘clearly associated with longevity’.

Also it’s well worth taking a look at this presentation by Dr Patrick, where she discusses how using a sauna may help you live longer.

Photo by Jonathan Forage on Unsplash