A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

If you have heart problems should you sauna?

Girl in a sauna - Heart benefits of saunas

Medical research has shown that saunas are beneficial for your health, even if you have a heart condition.

Have you been curious about trying a sauna but you’re concerned about its effects on your heart, especially if you have a heart condition?

A Marshfield Clinic Health System heart specialist may just have some good news for you.

“Does it help? That’s a very good question,” said Dr. Shereif Rezkalla. Rezkalla, also a noted researcher, looks at studies and trends in heart care.

Are you ready for the answer?

The good news, Rezkalla said, is that medical research has found the answer to be “yes.” It is beneficial, though you’ll want to temper your time in the sweat box.

A sauna is a small room or building in which you can experience dry or wet heat that’s meant to make you sweat. If you’re healthy and have no heart-related conditions, you can sweat to your heart’s delight for up to 30 minutes a session.

Studies provide answers

Rezkalla looked at a study from Finland, a country that has long had the practice of sauna. The study, done a year ago, had researchers observe 150 people ages 40-50 who had no heart trouble but were at high risk for high cholesterol, diabetes “and doing not everything the right way,” he said. At the end of the observation period, they found sauna decreased stress, a significant risk for acute myocardial infarction or heart attack; and reduces blood pressure by several points.

“In addition, they did an arterial elasticity test and found, indeed, elasticity improved with sauna,” Rezkalla said. “So, these are all good things that happen.”

At the end of the observation, results showed these study subjects had fewer cardiac events.

They noted if healthy people use a sauna they’ll get these benefits,” Rezkalla said. “In fact, they found the benefit of a sauna equals the benefit of exercise. You can work every day for a half hour in the gym until you’re truly tired and short of breath or you can sit and relax with your buddies in the sauna having fun and getting the same benefit.”

Another Finnish study looked at the benefit of sauna for patients with coronary artery disease, acute myocardial infarction and congestive heart failure.

Results showed you can still enjoy a sauna but you need to modify the time.

“This study had a very large cohort and results showed you get the same benefit,” Rezkalla said. “The only difference is you limit the sauna to 10 minutes or a maximum of 20 minutes.”

There were few patients in this study who had syncope, a temporary loss of consciousness due to not enough blood flowing to the brain since the heart doesn’t pump enough oxygen.

Sauna recommendations are clear

Looking at all the studies, Rezkalla’s recommendations are very clear. For healthy people who don’t have coronary artery disease, they can sauna for up to 30 minutes.

If you have heart disease, regardless of whether it’s congestive heart failure or heart attack, Rezkalla has certain recommendations:

  • If you have had syncope or severe lightheadedness, do not try a sauna. However, if you do proceed, limit your time to 10 minutes.
  • Before and after a sauna drink plenty of water – 3-4 bottles is a good measure – to stay hydrated.
  • The day of the sauna, do not drink alcohol because it causes dehydration.

His final advice?

If you have heart issues, check with your cardiologist before starting such a program “because in the end we are all different,” he said.

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