Are saunas good for cardiovascular health?

May 30 | Tom Harvey

Sauna bathing is a form of heat therapy that takes place in a room heated by infrared light waves, electricity, or simple burning wood. Saunas typically reach temperatures between 80°C to 95°C (113 °F to 212 °F), using dry heat to penetrate the skin and promote a number of health benefits. 

Research has shown that sauna use is beneficial for ailments such as arthritis, chronic fatigue, cold symptoms, muscle soreness, and more, but what about cardiovascular health? 

Completed studies conclude that repeated sauna treatments can improve impaired vascular endothelial function when evaluated through coronary risk factors. This suggests that the therapeutic benefits of sauna bathing can reduce the risk of cardiovascular ailments such as sudden cardiac death (SCD), fatal coronary heart disease (CHD), and fatal cardiovascular disease (CVD).

While more research is needed to back up these initial findings into the correlation between sauna usage and cardiovascular health, the early conclusions offer a promising insight into whether saunas are an effective preventative measure.

How many saunas promote cardiovascular health?

All saunas promote cardiovascular health benefits, no matter whether they’re traditional saunas or infrared alternatives. This is because the intensely high temperature within the sauna can drive the heart rate to levels often achieved by moderate physical activity, which promotes healthy function of the heart and surrounding structures. 

The research on cardiovascular health is limited, but the majority of studies have shown that people who frequent saunas more often during the week benefit more than those who only go once or twice a week. One study found that people who frequented the sauna between 4 and 7 times a week had significantly lower death rates from heart disease and stroke. 

What are some of the potential cardiovascular health benefits of sauna use?

Can reduce blood pressure

There have been studies conducted to show the benefits of repeated use on blood pressure, including the immediate reduction in blood pressure after stepping out of the sauna. Over time, high blood pressure can damage the blood vessels and nerves that control your heart, making it vital that you keep your blood pressure as low as possible. If the sauna can bring your blood pressure down, it might be able to benefit your cardiovascular health in the long run. 

For the best benefits, combine regular sauna use with exercise. One study showed that combining a 15-minute exercise session with a post-workout sauna session could improve blood pressure significantly. This was concluded after the results were compared to people who exercised 15 minutes, three times a week, without a sauna session afterwards. 

Might reduce cholesterol 

Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance within your cells. People with high cholesterol have a much higher risk of developing heart disease – in fact, lowering your total cholesterol by just 10 percent can reduce your risk of heart disease by 30 percent. 

Sweating can raise your good cholesterol levels (HDL), which improves your overall cholesterol. The most efficient way to sweat and improve your cholesterol is to exercise, but sauna bathing can also help you work up a sweat to achieve similar results. Again, combining a workout with a sauna bath can help you reap double the reward. 

Improves cardiovascular respiratory fitness level

Your cardiovascular respiratory fitness level (CRF) is how effectively your body can deliver oxygen to your muscles and organs while exercising. The higher your CRF is, the more likely you are to benefit from a lower risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular ailments. 

The more you exercise, the higher your CRF will become. This is because you’re training your body to move oxygen around it more efficiently. However, sauna bathing can improve your CRF more than exercising alone, so it’s well worth adding to your post-workout routine. Improving the oxygen levels in your muscles and organs can also improve their function and recovery time. 

May reduce the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases

Research has shown that sauna bathing might be effective in reducing the risk of heart disease, which is the number one killer in Australia. It accounts for 10.1 percent of all deaths, so reducing the risk is beneficial for a number of reasons. The study showed that participants who frequented the sauna between 4 and 7 times a week had a lower rate of death due to heart disease and stroke. 

Scientific evidence and findings on the impact saunas have on cardiovascular health

While most studies on cardiovascular disease and sauna bathing take many years to end and draw conclusions from, a few have been concluded to show promising effects of sauna bathing on cardiovascular health.

One study followed 2,315 middle-aged participants who frequently used traditional saunas. The study followed the participants for 20 years, showing how many of them suffered from SCDs, CHDs, and CVDs. The study showed a pattern in all of these cardiovascular ailments in which the more frequently a participant visited the sauna, the lower their risk of mortality risk.

For example, out of these 2,315 participants, 10.1 percent suffered from SCD after frequenting the sauna once a week. 7.8 percent of people who went 2 to 3 times a week died of SCD, and sauna bathing 4 to 7 times a week lowered the risk to 5 percent.

Another study followed 25 men with at least one coronary risk factor and 10 men without any risk factors. Participants used infrared sauna bathing for 15 minutes and were then wrapped in blankets for 30 minutes a day for two weeks. The brachial artery diameter was measured to assess endothelial function, and the results showed that Flow-mediated endothelium-dependent dilation (FMD) was significantly improved in the risk group.

Both of these studies showed that frequent sauna bathing could improve cardiovascular function and reduce mortality risk associated with heart health. However, more research will be needed to verify these results in a wider population, as both of these studies were completed with middle-aged men only.

Are there any potential risks or precautions to consider?

While it is generally considered safe to use a sauna for most individuals, there are a few exceptions. People with unstable heart disease might not be able to use sauna bathing to improve cardiovascular function, so it’s worth talking to your doctor before using a sauna if you have one of the following conditions:

Sauna bathing can also pose a threat to people who have low blood pressure, dehydration, a fever, acute infections, or skin breakdown. You should consult your doctor before using a sauna if you’re concerned about suffering from any of these conditions.

How often should you consider using a sauna to improve cardiovascular health?

Research has shown that the more frequently you can use a sauna, the more benefits your heart will be able to reap. While the benefits of sauna bathing can be seen after just one session a week, you’ll see better results after frequently using the sauna 4 to 7 times a week. 2 to 3 times a week is better than once, so you could use this frequency while getting used to regular sauna bathing.

It’s important that you listen to your body when starting with sauna bathing so you don’t push yourself too far. You can begin within a few sessions a week and work up to a higher frequency. This is especially true if you’re planning on pairing your sauna use with workout sessions.

Our in-house experts’ tips for using a sauna to help with cardiovascular health

Tom Harvey, founding Director of TH7 shares his tips to keep in mind when kickstarting your sauna journey:

Final thoughts

Research indicates that frequent sauna use can reduce the risk of cardiovascular health-related deaths. Saunas can also improve blood pressure, cholesterol, and more to improve heart health. You’ll be able to see the most benefits from 4 to 7 sauna sessions a week, and even more so if you complete a workout before your sauna bath.

While more research is needed to back up these conclusions, the initial findings are very promising! So kick back and relax, and enjoy the thought of improved cardiovascular function.