They have long been lauded an easy way to help with weight loss.
But taking regular saunas could slash the risk of stroke, new research suggests.
People who took a sauna between four to seven times a week were 61 per cent less likely to have a stroke than those who had just one, a study found.
The more frequently saunas were taken, the lower the risk of stroke.
Researchers believe the high temperatures can help to reduce blood pressure – a leading cause of stroke – as well as boost the immune system and keep the heart and blood vessels healthy.
They have long been lauded an easy way to help with weight loss. But taking regular saunas could slash the risk of stroke, new research suggests
Lead author Dr Setor Kunutsor, of the University of Bristol, said: ‘These results are exciting because they suggest that this activity that 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.’
Researchers studied 1,628 people over a period of 15 years in Finland, where most homes are fitted with saunas.
The participants, who had an average age of 63 and had no history of stroke, were questioned about sauna habits and other factors, such as physical activity and how much alcohol they drink.
Cholesterol, blood pressure and other factors that could affect the risk of a stroke were also tested at the start of the study.
During the study follow-up period, 155 of the participants had a stroke.
The rate of stroke per 1,000 person-years was 8.1 for those who took one sauna per week, compared to 7.4 for those who took two to three sauna per week and 2.8 for those who took four to seven saunas per week.
Those who took a sauna four to seven times a week were 60 per cent less likely to have a stroke than people who took only one sauna per week, according to the findings published in the journal Neurology.
The results were the same after researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect stroke risk, such as high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes and physical activity.
CAN SAUNAS PREVENT DEMENTIA?
Frequent sauna bathing can reduce the risk of dementia, the same Finnish researchers claimed in December.
Men taking a sauna four to seven times a week were 66 per cent less likely to be diagnosed with dementia than those taking a sauna once a week.
The 20-year follow-up study from the University of Eastern Finland was the first to link sauna bathing to dementia risk.
According to Professor Jari Laukkanen, who led the research, it could have a double benefit, protecting both the heart and memory.
‘It is known that cardiovascular health affects the brain as well,’ he said.
‘The sense of well-being and relaxation experienced during sauna bathing may also play a role.’
In a recent experimental study, the same group of scientists also showed that sauna bathing has acute effects on the stiffness of the arterial wall, linked to heart disease. This affects the heart’s ability to pump blood around the body.
It is thought that the heat from the sauna causes an increase in heart rate and widening of blood vessels in the skin which leads to increased blood flow, which improves cardiovascular function, reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Dr Knutsnor added: ‘Previous studies have shown that sauna bathing may be associated with a reduced risk of high blood pressure, dementia and death from cardiovascular disease, but this is the first study on sauna use and the risk of stroke.
‘Saunas appear to have a blood pressure lowering effect, which may underlie the beneficial effect on stroke risk.’
He said the study was observational, and does not show a ’cause-and-effect’ relationship between sauna use and lower stroke risk. It only shows an association.
Dr Knutsnor said a limitation of the study was that it was based on traditional Finnish saunas and the results cannot be applied to other types of heat therapy such as infrared heat exposure, steam rooms and hot tubs.
Medical evidence suggests some people shouldn’t use saunas, including those who have recently had a heart attack and those with unstable angina, or chest pain.
Doctors say elderly people with low blood pressure should use caution when taking a sauna, according to experts.