In Finland, the ritual of a daily sauna is considered to be an essential part of a healthy life- not a luxury. It can be a place for quiet reflection, a place to do business, or sometimes even a place to give birth. It is often followed by a dip in the nearby lake, sometimes through a hole in the ice if it is wintertime! It is common for Finns to have a small sauna at home and even more common for them to have one at their summer lake retreat. It is estimated that there are about 3 million saunas in a country of just 5.4 million people.
The University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio published a study in December 2016 which confirmed what many Scandinavians had known for hundreds of years. Taking a daily sauna really is good for you.
The study followed over 2300 men from Finland, aged between 42 and 60 years old for over 20 years. The men used the Finnish style dry heat sauna at a temperature of 175 degrees Fahrenheit. At the end of the study, there were 327 new cases of dementia in the group. The results were adjusted for variables such as age, alcohol use, body mass index, blood pressure, smoking status, diabetes, previous heart attacks, resting heart rate and cholesterol levels.
The results were looked at in three groups - the first group of men who had one sauna per week or less, the second group of men who had 2 - 3 saunas per week (described as moderate users) and the high use group had a sauna 4 - 7 times per week.
The results were quite dramatic. The moderate users who took a sauna 2-3 times a week had a 20% lower risk of getting dementia than the men who had only one or no saunas per week. The men who were having a sauna 4-7 times per week had a risk reduction of 65%. These results were replicated in a study in Oshaki City, Japan where nearly 7000 elderly men were studied. In Japan using a sauna is referred to as Wa-On therapy with “wa” meaning soothing and “on” referring to warmth.
When looking at the cardiovascular risks for the group, researchers found that the benefits were not just in preventing dementia. The men in the moderate use group were 27% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than the infrequent users and the men in the high use group were 50% less likely to die! Looking at death from any cause, the high use group were 40% less likely to die than the lowest use group.
Time spent in the saunas also seemed to have some correlation to these results. The men who spent more than 20 minutes in the sauna each time had more benefit than those who spent ten minutes or less.
Saunas convey many other benefits, helping mild depression, arthritis, blood pressure and some skin conditions. There is a reason it is referred to as “the poor man’s pharmacy” in Finland.