In Finland, they start taking them in childhood. That’s because many families have a unit in their homes.

In fact, even with a population of only 5½ million, there are at least one million saunas in use, with most Finns taking at least one bath a week.

The sauna is entwined in Finnish national culture (they can even be found in state institutions and large companies), but the benefits are starting to catch on in many other countries, including the US.

Though saunas have established cardiovascular benefits, no study had ever been conducted to see if they reduce the risk of stroke – until now.

Frequent Use Reduces Risk By More Than Half

An international group of scientists assessed 1,628 people aged between 53 and 74 who had no history of stroke. Participants filled out a questionnaire and were evaluated for cardiovascular risk at the start of the study. 15 years later, 155 were found to have suffered a stroke.

After adjusting the findings to take into account known and possible risk factors for stroke such as body mass index, smoking, alcohol, blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, physical activity, socioeconomic status and medications, the investigators found that frequent sauna bathing “substantially reduced risk of new-onset stroke.”

The rate of stroke per thousand person-years was 8.1 for those taking just a single sauna session a week, 7.4 for those taking two or three, but only 2.8 for the ones who enjoyed saunas four to seven times a week.

This means the most frequent bathers had a 61% reduced risk compared to those taking the fewest.

The findings were published in Neurology in May.

Lowers Blood Pressure

Leading the study was Setor K. Kunutsor, PhD, from the University of Bristol in the UK.

He said, “These results are exciting because they suggest that this activity people use for relaxation and pleasure may also have beneficial effects on your vascular health. Sauna bathing is a safe activity for most healthy people and even people with stable heart problems.

“Saunas appear to have a blood pressure lowering effect, which may underlie the beneficial effect on stroke risk.”

The same research group had previously conducted other studies on the use of saunas and found they reduced high blood pressure, lowered the risk of respiratory diseases in middle-aged men, and, combined with aerobic exercise, reduced the risk of death from any cause.

Three months ago they published further findings showing that 30 minutes of sauna bathing reduced stiffness of the arteries, lowered blood pressure and had positive effects on some blood markers.

Benefits Health in Multiple Ways

The journal Neurology commented on the most recent study and outlined further benefits that come from sauna bathing.

The editors wrote that saunas relax (decrease the activity of) the sympathetic nervous system, support antioxidant systems to fight free radicals, and help prevent and are therapeutic for cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure and high blood pressure.

They add that it benefits glucose metabolism (to help prevent diabetes), wards off diabetic complications, lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol, helps relieve pain in musculoskeletal conditions and may reduce symptoms of depression, chronic fatigue and anorexia.

Dr. Kunutsor emphasizes that the findings were based on traditional Finnish saunas which operate at an average temperature of 75.8º C (168º F) and where temperature and humidity can be controlled. Other types of saunas may not operate to the same specs.

For those interested in this traditional Nordic experience, further information is available from The North American Sauna Society. Their website is listed below.