Original Article from TheConversation.com

Authors: Joy Hussain & Jack Tsonis

People use sauna for well-being,

but its medical benefits are not widely understood

Many people use sauna to relax, but some evidence has shown it can improve certain health outcomes.From shutterstock.com
Joy Hussain, RMIT University and Jack Tsonis, Western Sydney University

Why do people use sauna? Despite centuries of anecdotal evidence which says the practice is relaxing and healthy, researchers have never actually asked this question. Until now.

With increasing evidence pointing to the health benefits of sauna, Australian researchers decided to conduct an online global sauna survey to start to understand why people regularly subject themselves to extreme heat.

They found the overwhelming motivation for sauna bathing was relaxation and stress reduction, alongside other health benefits such as pain relief and improved sleep.

But the results highlighted that sauna does not appear to be widely recognised as a health intervention for a range of chronic conditions it has been shown to benefit. This suggests more education is needed for both medical professionals and the wider community.

At the same time, we need continued scientific research to better understand the health benefits of sauna bathing.

What the survey found

Other leading motivations for using sauna included “to relieve aches and pains” (88%), “social – to meet and talk with friends” (85%), “to improve circulation” (85%), “detoxification” (83%), and “professional – to meet and talk with business colleagues” (50%).

The top three activities reported as occurring inside the sauna were relaxation (100%), talking with others (79%), and meditation (68%) – again highlighting the function of sauna as a space for mental regeneration.

Some 84% of respondents reported improved sleep, lasting for one to two nights after sauna use. Given the importance of sleep for general health, sauna seems to hold promise as an enjoyable and non-pharmacological tool to promote better rest.

One-third of respondents were overweight or obese, which suggests regular sauna bathing is well tolerated by this population.

While the precise mechanisms are still not understood, the physical effects of sauna – including heart rate, blood pressure, and cellular responses – correspond to similar benefits seen with moderate intensity physical exercise.
Close to 500 people took part in the Global Sauna Survey. From shutterstock.com

Sauna use doesn’t reflect knowledge of recent evidence

The survey revealed two important broader points. Firstly, people areusing sauna in ways not fully backed up by medical evidence yet.One-third of respondents reported having a medically diagnosed healthcondition, with the most common being back pain, followed bymusculoskeletal problems. Interestingly, two-thirds of these respondentsreported sauna bathing improved their condition, at least temporarily.

Butthere is little evidence on sauna for these specific health issues, andsauna is rarely part of conventional treatment plans for suchconditions. The same applies to reports about improved sleep.

Secondly,and by contrast, high blood pressure and heart conditions were notamong the top medical conditions of respondents, despite the benefitssauna has demonstrated for cardiovascular health. Recent observational and experimentalstudies have shown people who regularly use sauna experience fewerincidents of high blood pressure and have fewer heart attacks andstrokes.

But the fact sauna users are not commonly bathing withthese benefits in mind suggests many health professionals may not yet beaware of the scientific literature surrounding the potential preventivehealth benefits of sauna use.

Given the evidence for stressreduction shown in this survey, sauna also shows promise as anintervention for a range of chronic diseases where psychological stressis considered to be strongly associated with the mechanisms behind thedisease (for example, depression, heart disease, and arthritis).

From sauna research to sauna treatment

Sauna has potential benefits for a range of major health challengesfacing today’s population. To maximise these benefits, a few key stepslie ahead.

The most important thing is more attention fromresearchers. The health outcomes demonstrated so far all need furtherevidence, and we need continued social science to understand more abouthow the technology might be spread at a community level. Increasedaccess to community bathing facilities will require public support andentrepreneurial vision.

The other key step is for saunaresearchers to engage with health professionals, so sauna may becomerecognised alongside other evidence-based treatments for chronicconditions in both clinical and community settings.

Do you use sauna in Australia? Researchers from Western Sydney University are currently conducting a follow-up survey.The Conversation

Joy Hussain, GP Researcher, RMIT University and Jack Tsonis, Lecturer, Graduate Research School, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.