Saunas might be more than just a relaxing treat.
Although their invention is often ascribed to the people of Finland, saunas and sweat lodges appeared independently in many cultures throughout ancient history.
Today, they are relatively popular in much of the Western world — and for good reason.
In fact, saunas were all the rage across much of Europe in the Middle Ages.
That is, until a syphilis scare swept the continent in the 1500s, putting saunas on the back-burner for a while.
Interestingly, the outbreak didn't take hold in Finland, so their popularity there never waned. During recent decades, with syphilis becoming less of a concern, saunas have enjoyed a strong resurgence in favor.
Anyone who has ever stepped into a sauna and relaxed for a while will understand why they are so popular. There's nothing quite like sitting motionless in a dark, damp, hot shed. Psychologically speaking, one can imagine they might do wonders for your stress levels.
The health benefits of saunas
Aside from the potential psychological benefits of relaxing in the warm, several researchers have wondered whether saunas might also impact physical health.
For instance, studies have shown that taking a sauna can lower blood pressure, while others have concluded that regular saunas might reduce dementia risk. Others still have found a link between saunas and a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease-related death.
For the first time, scientists from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom take a look at the sauna's potential impact on stroke risk.
The study followed 1,628 participants for an average of 15 years; their average age was 63, and none of them had a history of stroke.
Each person filled out a questionnaire asking how many times they took saunas. They were also asked about a range of other factors that could influence stroke risk, such as alcohol intake, cholesterol levels, physical activity, and blood pressure.
The results were published this week in the journal Neurology.
Across the decade and a half, 155 people had a stroke. Individuals who took one sauna per week had a rate of 8.1 strokes per 1,000 person-years. For those who took two to three per week, the rate was 7.4, and for people who took four to seven per week, the rate dropped to 2.8.
In other words, people who had saunas four to seven times per week were 60 percent less likely to have a stroke than those who only enjoyed one per week.
Even after the researchers adjusted the analysis to take account of other risk factors, such as smoking and cholesterol levels, the findings remained the same.
"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."
Senior study author Setor K. Kunutsor, Ph.D.
As for how saunas might afford this protection, Kunutsor explains, "Saunas appear to have a blood pressure-lowering effect, which may underlie the beneficial effect on stroke risk."
Observation and association
Of course, this study is observational and can only show an association between the amount of saunas taken and stroke risk.
For example, people who regularly hit the sauna might do so because they have more free time; those who take fewer may lead busier, more stressful lives, which could be the cause of the increased stroke risk, rather than it being directly related to a lack of sauna time.
As Kunutsor explains, "Sauna bathing is a safe activity for most healthy people and even people with stable heart problems. More research is needed to confirm this finding and to understand the ways that saunas affect stroke risk."
It is vital to note that, for some, saunas might not be safe. For instance, people who have recently had a heart attack and anyone with chest pain or unstable angina should avoid the sauna. Also, older adults with low blood pressure must be cautious when taking a sauna.
But, if you don't fall into any of these high-risk categories, it might be time to take up this rather pleasant Finnish pastime.