Dr. Jari Laukkanen on Sauna Use for the Prevention of Cardiovascular & Alzheimer’s Disease

Posted on June 15th 2017 (over 2 years)

Jari Laukkanen, MD, PhD, is a cardiologist and scientist at the Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition, University of Eastern Finland, Kuopio. His early research demonstrated the importance of exercise, fitness, blood pressure, and blood biomarkers in predicting outcomes of cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease, sudden cardiac death, cardiac arrhythmias, and heart failure. Dr. Laukkanen’s current work is focused on elucidating the roles that cardio-metabolic risk factors play on cardiovascular disease outcomes and identifying clinically relevant risk factors, especially for sudden cardiac death.

An ancient practice

Bathing oneself in heat for the purposes of purification, cleansing, and healing is an ancient practice, dating back thousands of years across many cultures. Variations of its use are seen today in the banyas of Russia, the hararas of Turkey, the sweat lodges of the American Indians, and, most famously, the saunas of Finland.

Sauna use, sometimes referred to as “sauna bathing,” is characterized by passive exposure to extreme heat. This exposure elicits mild hyperthermia – an increase in the body’s core temperature – that induces a thermoregulatory response involving hormonal, cardiovascular, and cytoprotective mechanisms that work together to restore homeostasis and condition the body for future stressors. In recent decades, sauna use has emerged as a means to increase lifespan and improve overall health.

A key player in longevity

Living longer and healthier is intrinsically linked with preventing or delaying the onset of chronic disease. Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death and disability worldwide, claiming the lives of approximately 18 million people in 2016. Over the past decade, scientists have identified links between sauna use and reduced cardiovascular-related disease and death.

Dr. Jari Laukkanen’s lab conducted a study that took place over a 20-year period and involved more than 2,300 middle-aged men living in Eastern Finland. They found that men who used the sauna two to three times per week were 27 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular-related causes than men who didn’t use the sauna. Surprisingly, the benefits they experienced were dose-dependent: Men who used the sauna roughly twice as often, about four to seven times per week, experienced roughly twice the benefits – and were 50 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular-related causes. In fact, they were 40 percent less likely to die from all causes of premature death. These findings held true even when considering age, activity levels, and lifestyle factors that might have influenced the men’s health.

A solution for the fundamental mechanisms that drive disease and disability

The hyperthermic conditioning that occurs during and after sauna bathing addresses many of the key drivers of disease and disability associated with cardiovascular disease, muscle atrophy, and cognitive decline.

Cardiovascular disease

Hypertension Hypertension – defined as a systolic pressure of 130 mm Hg or higher, or a diastolic pressure of 80 mm Hg or higher – is a chronic elevation of blood pressure. It is a robust predictor of future incidence of stroke, coronary heart disease, heart attack, heart failure, and cardiovascular-related death. Central to the pathophysiology of hypertension is the loss of arterial compliance, or elasticity, which can have far-reaching effects on multiple organ systems, including the brain and kidney. A common element among sauna users, however, is lower incidence of hypertension, likely through improvements in arterial compliance. As such, sauna use may serve as a non-pharmacological means to address hypertension or even prevent it.

Inflammation Inflammation is a key factor in the development of atherosclerosis and the progression to coronary heart disease. C-reactive protein (CRP), one of several blood proteins often referred to as acute phase reactants, participates in the inflammatory cascade. Elevated CRP is associated with the development of atherosclerosis, loss of arterial compliance, and incidence of cardiovascular events. Frequent sauna use, however, markedly reduces blood levels of CRP.

Endothelial dysfunction The endothelium, the cell layer that lines the blood vessels, secretes substances that regulate blood vessel dilation (vasodilators) and constriction (vasoconstrictors). Endothelial dysfunction is characterized by decreased secretion of vasodilators and/or increased secretion of vasoconstrictors. This imbalance leads to impaired endothelium-dependent vasodilation, which is common among people who have congestive heart failure. Two weeks of sauna therapy, however, improved endothelial and cardiac function in patients with congestive heart failure.

Muscle atrophy, the shrinking or wasting away of muscles, can occur as part of a disease process, trauma, or aging. Age-related muscle atrophy is closely linked with increased risk of all-cause mortality. However, sauna use induces a massive induction of growth hormone, which reduces muscle loss. Many of the anabolic effects of growth hormone are thought to be mediated by insulin-like growth factor-1, or IGF-1, which is synthesized primarily in the liver but also in skeletal muscle in response to growth hormone.

Cognitive decline

Cognitive function relies on sufficient blood flow to the brain and peripheral nervous system, so cardiovascular diseases and cognitive decline often go hand-in-hand. For example, hypertension alters the structure of cerebral blood vessels and impairs adequate blood flow to the brain. Poor cerebral blood flow is commonly observed in mice and humans and may contribute to impaired amyloid-beta clearance, thereby accelerating the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

And, although IGF-1 is best known for its role in muscle growth, it also works with brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, to promote neurogenesis – the growth of new neurons in the brain. Dr. Laukkanen’s research found that men who used the sauna four to seven times per week had a 65 percent reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, compared to men who used the sauna only one time per week.

Similarities to exercise

Dr. Laukkanen points out that many of the benefits associated with sauna use are remarkably similar to those associated with moderate- to high-intensity exercise. The heat of the sauna increases heart rate and breathing, challenging the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and promoting the release of neuroendocrine factors.

Dr. Laukkanen’s future research will examine the role that sauna bathing plays in reducing the risk of respiratory diseases in a long-term prospective cohort study.

"In this study, we found, really, that sauna use was inversely associated with the risk of fatal coronary heart disease events and all-cause mortality." - Jari Laukkanen, MD Click To Tweet

Learn more about Dr. Jari Laukkanen

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