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Saunas may help reduce risk of high blood pressure

Ben Schmitt
| Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
A study of middle-aged Finnish men found spending time in a sauna helped reduce the risk of high blood pressure.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
A study of middle-aged Finnish men found spending time in a sauna helped reduce the risk of high blood pressure.

Hanging out in the warmth of a sauna several times a week could help reduce the risk of high blood pressure, a new study shows.

The study, to be published in the November issue of the American Journal of Hypertension , included 1,621 middle-aged Finnish men with normal blood pressure who were followed for an average of 22 years.

Those who took to the sauna four to seven times a week for about 19 minutes each visit, reduced their risk of high blood pressure by nearly 50 percent, compared to those who visited just once a week.

Researchers hypothesized the heat of the sauna caused blood vessels to widen, or dilate, easing blood flow and thereby decreasing blood pressure.

“It's definitely an interesting study,” says Dr. Matthew Muldoon, clinical director of the Heart and Vascular Institute of UPMC. “It suggests that repeated heat exposure in a sauna might have lasting benefits.”

Sweating also removes fluid from the body, serving as a natural diuretic, Muldoon says.

“Many blood pressure medications work by dilating blood vessels or getting rid of fluid,” he says.

The study only included men with normal blood pressure, who visited a sauna at least once a week. Over the two decades, about 16 percent of those men developed high blood pressure, defined as levels higher than 140/90 mm.

About 75 million adults in the United States have high blood pressure, or hypertension, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hypertension is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, and in 2014, high blood pressure was a main or contributing cause of death for more than 410,000 people in the United States.

The study found the risk of developing high blood pressure decreased by 24 percent for men who went to a sauna two to three times a week, and by 46 percent for men who went took four to seven times a week, compared to once-a-week saunagoers.

Dr. Srinivas Murali, an Allegheny Health Network cardiologist, is intrigued by the findings.

“Obviously this needs to be validated in larger studies,” he says. “We need more answers before some of these things can be widely recommended as treatment for patients.”

He agreed that heat and sweating play key roles in dilating blood vessels and possibly reducing cardiovascular risks. The sauna temperatures in the study ranged from 176 to 212 degrees.

“This concept has certainly been talked about for the past several years,” Murali says.

The study adjusted for factors that included body mass index, alcohol consumption, resting heart rate, smoking, family history of hypertension and other variables.

Besides medication when needed, doctors recommend a healthy diet, regular exercise and weight control as ways to prevent or manage high blood pressure.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, or via Twitter @Bencschmitt.

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