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Sauna: The Hottest Therapy for Heart Disease

09/08/2015 02:10 pm ET | Updated Sep 08, 2016

I am an integrative cardiologist and I search the medical literature for therapies for heart disease that compliment or replace conventional practice. One of the therapies that I have learned from my Japanese colleagues is the powerful role of sauna therapy for heart patients. In fact, the data suggests that sauna may be one of the most important health habits to have to prevent and reverse the #1 killer in the Western world.

In Japan, sauna therapy is called waon, from the Japanese words wa for soothing and on for warmth. Heart patients sit in an infrared sauna set at 60° C (140° F) for 15 minutes, followed by resting outside the sauna for 30 minutes, wrapped in towels.

What happens to a heart patients who enjoys this soothing warmth therapy? One benefit that has been measured in research studies is healthier arteries. Waon therapy has been shown to improve the function of endothelial cells that line every artery in the body resulting in better health and functionality.

Waon therapy may save lives. In a provocative study of 129 patients with bad heart problems, patients treated with waon therapy at least two times a week were compared to similar patients who did not get the therapy. Over five years of follow-up, the rates of re-hospitalization and death were half in the waon treated patients compared to the others.

In a recent study, waon sauna therapy improved exercise capacity, quality of life, and mental capacity in patients with advanced heart failure (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25740582).

Although most studied documenting the health benefits of sauna for the heart originate in Japan, a large report relating the impact of the frequency and duration of visiting a sauna was published from this year fro Finland. The highest frequency and duration of sauna use reduced the risk of heart and all-cause deaths by over 50%.

Saunas are a luxury in the home but it is an option. Patients have used health accounts to cover the cost of buying their own units. An increasing number of spas and massage chains are incorporating infrared sauna into their programs making them available to more heart patients.

A heart attack occurs every 43 seconds in the United States and remains one of the most frequent causes of sudden death, ripping families apart. A comprehensive lifestyle program can dramatically reduce that risk. It appears that a sauna a day keeps both the heart attack and the doctor away.