By Dr. Oren Gersten
Part of the job of any primary care doctor is staying up to date on the latest medical research. There are numerous medical journals each publishing a range of research topics every week. Article topics can be very specific, technical, and dare I say – boring. When an article comes across my desk that is not only useful but fun, that is a good day.
So it is with this article published in the British journal, BMC Medicine. The study came out in 2018 but is certainly still applicable. Researchers looked at a cohort of 1,688 middle aged men and women in Finland and analyzed how often they used a sauna and the risk of dying from heart disease. What they found is that people who used a sauna more often were less likely to have a fatal heart attack. The amazing part of the study is that the effects were so significant. Using the sauna 2 or more times per week led to a 77% reduction in fatal heart attacks. That effect is far better than any drug on the market!
A real strength of the study was that it followed individuals for 15 years, which by medical study standards is quite a long time. Another key point of the study is that there were different “doses” of sauna exposure. To really show that sauna use is helpful you would like to see more use resulting in better outcomes – which this study does show. Finally, the study did not have any conflicts of interest. It was funded by The Finnish Foundation for Cardiovascular Research. If it was funded by a sauna manufacturer, I would be much more skeptical of the results.
A good scientist should always be skeptical of new information. Can we really trust this data?
Overall, this is a good study. However, there are a few areas I question. First, they only studied Finnish people. I wonder if this is broadly generalizable to the rest of the world. Could there be something special in Finnish genetics or body makeup that makes sauna especially healthy for them? Second, there was no placebo group. Who’s to say it wasn’t simply the relaxation in a social setting – not the sauna itself – that protected against heart attacks. Lastly, someone who has 6 hours per week to spend in a sauna likely has a pretty good life to begin with: eats good food, exercises, and is less stressed. The study did attempt to account for this by statistically tracking socioeconomic status (individual income) and physical activity levels. Even with those taken into account the protective effect of sauna were still present.
The real utility of this article (really any science for that matter) is if it can help people live better. We need to analyze new information in the context of ideas that we already hold to be true.
Here are my takeaway points from this article:
- Self-care activities aimed at relaxation, including activities like sauna, help us live longer and better lives
- Medication is not the only answer protecting people from disease
- There is evidence that sweating it out in a sauna 2 or more times per week could reduce the risk of heart attack by 77%
So, whether it’s a hot cup of tea, snuggling up in your favorite blanket, or jumping into a hot sauna, take some time to treat yourself this winter. The health benefits could be more than you know.
Disclaimer: During a global pandemic close contact with others in a confined space increases the risk of transmitting communicable disease. The effects of high temperatures on COVID transmission has not been studied, but it would be prudent to exercise caution when sharing a sauna with others.
Laukkanen T, Kunutsor SK, Khan H, Willeit P, Zaccardi F, Laukkanen JA. “Sauna bathing is associated with reduced cardiovascular mortality and improves risk prediction in men and women: a prospective cohort study.” BMC Med. 2018 Nov 29;16(1):219.
Oren Gersten is a board-certified family doctor who brings his passion for connecting and caring for people to his private practice, Portland Direct Primary Care, at 27 Ocean Street, #3, South Portland. Reach him at (207) 618-9792 or visit PortlandDirectCare.com.