7 Health Benefits Of Saunas You Probably Didn’t Know About

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There's nothing more relaxing than hitting up the closest spa and letting all your worries melt away in the sauna. The health benefits of saunas, the heated, wood-lined room common in Scandinavian cultures, have been touted for thousands of years. You stay in an extremely hot place for a brief period, sweat your heart out, exit feeling refreshed and only a little bit toasted. However, for a long time it's been unclear precisely why saunas may make you feel better — though there's been quite a lot of evidence that they do.

New evidence in 2018, though, has made it clear that saunas use a very particular mechanism in the body to help us feel healthy. And no, it doesn't have anything to do with "sweating out impurities" (the body's internal waste disposal system deals with most so-called "toxins"); it actually has to do with blood flow. Exposure to dry heat in the controlled environment of a sauna for a limited period of time (not, say, on a baking street without access to water) appears to help our hearts function properly and exercises our blood vessels. And that, the scientists believe, is one of the big reasons behind a sauna's health benefits. Bring on the sizzling coals and pine-scented towels.

1They Can Lower Your Blood Pressure

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"Sauna bathing may be linked to several health benefits, which include reduction in the risk of vascular diseases such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and neuro-cognitive diseases," explain the scientists behind a recent report published in Mayo Clinic proceedings. And they have a good idea about why. These scientists also published a study earlier in 2018 that used 100 test subjects who spent 30 minutes in a sauna, and examined what happened to their hearts. And the results are illuminating.

Half an hour in a sauna, the research showed, lowered both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. These two numbers are what give your normal blood pressure reading: 'systolic' is the pressure on your blood vessels during a heartbeat, and 'diastolic' is the pressure between beats.

2They May Make Your Blood Vessels More Responsive

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Saunas, according to this research data, can help "vascular compliance", or how well your blood vessels respond to changes in pressure. That's a massive factor in the health of your heart and in how effectively your blood travels throughout your body, including to your brain.

Saunas, it turned out, make your blood vessels really responsive to pressure, and also heighten your heart rate; it was pretty common, according to the scientists, to see peoples' heart rates increase as if they were doing some moderately intensive exercise

3They Relax Your Arteries

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The people in the sauna study also showed evidence of artery relaxation after half an hour of spa time, which is an indicator of good heart health. You do not want arterial stiffness, because it raises your risk of cardiovascular issues and diseases. The stiffer your arteries, the more likely you are to have a heart attack or suffer some kind of bypass. This sounds contradictory, as many saunas recommend staying away if you have heart disease or heart problems, but other studies have shown that even for patients with serious heart disease, saunas can be helpful. However, you should still refer to a physician before you go if you've suffered a heart attack or have a history of cardiovascular issues.

4They May Be Good For Your Lifespan

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A few different studies have shown that there's a link between frequent sauna-taking and a lower risk of early mortality, though it's only been studied in men. A study of 2,300 Finnish men over 20 years found that, over the course of the study, 49 percent of once-weekly sauna takers passed away, compared with 38 percent of twice-weekly users and 31 percent of men who went nearly every day.

Part of this, the scientists behind the study say, is that saunas are often done communally, and help you bond with other people, which has confirmed health benefits of it's own. Plus they're meant to be relaxing and meditative. But the blood pumping effects seem to be making a difference, too.

5They Help Soothe Chronic Conditions

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"Sauna bathing has been linked to an improvement in pain and symptoms associated with musculoskeletal disorders such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia," the new study says. And chronic-type headaches are also included in their pain-busting properties.

Why? Partially, scientists believe, it's because saunas appear to reduce inflammation levels in the blood. In several chronic pain conditions, inflammation goes haywire to cause serious pain and fatigue, and saunas appear to reduce those markers. This isn't a cure, only a temporary reprieve, but for some it may be a serious benefit.

6They Could Help Your Brain

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Better blood flow doesn't just help your body; it also helps your brain. The research rounded up by this latest study shows that, in older Finnish men, having many sauna sessions a week was linked to a substantially lower risk of Alzheimer's and dementia. But there's a risk in saying there's cause and effect here.

"Whether sauna exposure exerts its neurocognitive protective effects or it is just an enjoyable activity that prevents or delays the development of these memory diseases is not clearly understood," explain the scientists. Hanging out with your friends and doing the crossword in a sauna may be the real hero here, not the sauna itself.

7They Seem To Protect Your Lungs

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Having a sauna when you've got a cold or are in the middle of cold season might seem counterintuitive, but the research suggests it's a good idea. Studies have shown that saunas can improve your lung function, even if you have asthma or chronic breathing problems, and reduce your risk of contracting a cold or pneumonia if you have them regularly in winter. This may not counteract somebody in the sauna sneezing on you, but when you're feeling shivery in your apartment when it dips below freezing, it may be a good idea to get thee to a sauna.

You can't rely on a sauna to give you every health advantage you need to live a healthy life; balanced nutrition and exercise matter, too. But the evidence suggests that you should could consider adding them into your routine when things get a little colder.