From podcasts to social media posts, saunas are everywhere now. Part of their increase in popularity can be attributed to research demonstrating a special link between frequent sauna use and improved mental and physical health, and possibly even longer life span, as well as startling evidence that it may prevent dementia. Here are some of the benefits of these hot air rooms.
Thorough Research Was Conducted
The majority of research on brain benefits originates in Finland, where sauna bathing is a pillar in the culture of happiness and health. Jussi Kauhahen, M.D., Ph.D., director of public health at the University of Eastern Finland and current head of the research group, says that a few years ago when Finnish researchers dug into some overlooked data on chronic disease risk and numbers they’d been collecting on middle-aged men since the 1980s, they found a special link.
Scientists from any other nation would not have thought to include a question about the frequency of taking a sauna in their lifestyle questionnaires. Dr. Kauhanen explains that in Finland, where it is essentially as universal as exercise and diet, the query seemed natural.
Men who used saunas four to seven times per week had a 65% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia over the next 20 years compared to men who used saunas only once per week. A 2020 study that followed nearly 14,000 Finnish people confirmed the earlier study’s findings: those who used saunas nine to 12 times per month had a 53% reduced chance of developing dementia over the next 20 years compared to those who went zero to four times per month. Researchers have a hypothesis why this is so.
How Saunas Benefits the Brain
Dr. Kauhanen explains that even though it may not appear productive, your body is undergoing a variety of psychological changes in a sauna, including some of the same processes that occur during exercise. Exercising in a gym or sitting in a sauna reduces inflammation, which is believed to play a role in dementia. Both activities also stimulate the body to produce proteins that promote neuroplasticity and appropriate protein folding in the brain, thereby reducing the risk of dementia. Kauhanen suggests that cold shock proteins may have similar effects on the brain as heat shock proteins.
Dr. Christopher Chen, director of the Memory, Ageing, and Cognition Center at the National University Health System in Singapore, suggests that saunas may also benefit the brain by exercising the pulse similarly to exercise. This not only reduces the risk of dementia but also enhances the function of your arteries, promotes healthy blood pressure, keeps oxygen and other nutrients flowing into your cells, and removes waste products.
Finally, saunas are enjoyable places to be in. Depression and social isolation are dementia risk factors. According to Dr. Kauhanen, in Finland, sauna use is a pleasurable and often social activity that has been linked to improved mental health over time.