Updated: Dec 19, 2019
Killing 1 out of 4 people, cardiovascular disease is a crippling condition that you or someone you know will eventually battle. As the number one cause of death in the United States, cardiovascular disease can present itself in many forms such as chronic heart disease, hypertension, rheumatic heart disease, and stroke. As those conditions progress, eventually, the heart can no longer pump adequately, and heart failure sets in. Once diagnosed with heart failure, the prognosis is grim with a mortality rate of 50% within 5 years.
How does heart failure progress?
The left ventricles in the heart eventually cannot pump to provide proper blood flow. When this happens, the heart compensates by increasing the force of contraction by increasing in size and pumping. While the heart is fighting, the kidneys start retaining sodium and water. This can lead to fatigue, shortness of breath, edema, uncomfortable breathing, congestion, and muscle wasting.
While there are many risk factors for heart disease, such as cigarette smoking, diet, exercise, stress, and genetics, the good news is prevention and management are very controllable with lifestyle.
It’s well-known that eliminating tobacco, alcohol, eating a healthy diet is beneficial to the heart, but what does science say about infrared saunas?
When one thinks of a sauna, most think about sitting in a steamy room. In a traditional sauna, heat is used to warm the air around you, and the warm air naturally heats your body. Infrared saunas are something special. Walking in, the air around you stays dry, but your body gets heated by the infrared rays. Heat waves are sent out at a specific energy range that produces sweating at a much lower temperature than traditional saunas. This makes it much more comfortable and enjoyable to sit in an infrared sauna.
And while saunas have been used since the stone age, it wasn’t until 1965 that medical practitioners in Japan started using infrared thermal systems for healing.
The benefits from infrared saunas is numerous such as easing joint pain, muscle relaxation, weight loss, skin improvements, and cardiovascular benefits.
The connection between infrared saunas and cardiovascular disease
There have been over 1,000 studies evaluating the connection between saunas and heart health. A metanalysis from November of 2018 looked at 7 studies specifically on the effects of saunas and cardiovascular disease, evaluating 491 patients with heart failure. The benefit of looking at reviews broken down this way is that you’re able to see specific enough criteria through multiple studies, versus just one.
The results of infrared sauna treatment and heart failure are pretty significant.
The studies found the following benefits
Lowered BNP value
When you have heart failure, your heart makes 2 proteins – BNP (natriuretic peptide) and N-terminal-pro-BNP (NT-pro-BNP). BNP levels help figure out if you have heart failure or something else. Levels of BNP increases as HF gets worse. Testing BNP levels is one of the most sensitive ways to show how well you’re doing on heart failure treatment.
Ejection fraction (EJ) significantly higher
EJ is a measurement of how well your left or right ventricle pumps blood with each heartbeat. Most of the time it refers to the left since the left is the heart’s main pumping chamber.
CTR significantly lower
Cardiothoracic ratio (CTR) is a chest x-ray measurement that measures the diameter of the heart and chest. A standard measure should be <0.5, and a number of >0.5 could indicate an enlargement of the heart, which is not a good thing.
Mortality rate lower
In a five-year follow-up of one study, there was a 38% reduction in cardiac events.
While there was no significant difference in blood pressure of endothelial function, overall, the infrared sauna was associated with improvement in cardiac function.
How exactly can the sauna improve cardiac function?
One theory is that when the body heats up, it produces sweat in an attempt to cool it back to homeostasis. This puts a demand on the body even when it is not doing anything physical. This cardiovascular demand of the sauna is similar to walking at a moderate pace. Exercise is essential when it comes to heart disease, and a sauna should be used in conjunction. And for those who are sedentary due to medical conditions, it’s a great alternative.
Additionally, stress reduction is huge when it comes to preventing and treating cardiovascular disease. Relaxing in a sauna is one way to reduce stress.
A link to the study can be found at Effects of sauna bath on heart failure: A systematic review and meta-analysis