Saunas Are A Hot Trend, And They Might Even Help Your Health

Is it the heat that makes you healthier? Or the chance to chill?

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It’s not even a month into winter, and the cold temperatures have already crushed my spirits. Bundling up every time I leave the house, unexpected school snow days, a sidewalk obstacle course of frozen dog poop: I’m over it. I find myself dreaming of not just spring but warmth in any form. So a sauna is sounding particularly good about now. And besides the respite from the cold, there are a host of claimed health benefits from regular sessions.

And indeed, research has shown an association between certain positive health outcomes and regular sauna use. A 2015 study covering more than 2,300 middle-aged men in Finland found the more frequently a man took a sauna, the lower his risk of fatal heart disease and early death. The same group of researchers has also reported an association between regular sauna use and a lower risk of high blood pressure, and between moderate to heavy use of saunas and a lower risk of dementia, among other benefits.

One caveat, besides the fact that the subjects were all men, is that saunas are so ingrained in the culture in Finland that it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t use them. So there’s no control group that used them not at all — only those who used them more or less frequently.

And with this type of study, it’s not possible to know whether it’s the sauna itself or some related factor, like the ability to afford time for frequent R&R, that is bringing the benefit. As Rita Redberg, a cardiologist at UCSF Medical Center, wrote in a JAMA Internal Medicineeditor’s note accompanying the 2015 study, “We do not know why the men who took saunas more frequently had greater longevity (whether it is the time spent in the hot room, the relaxation time, the leisure of a life that allows for more relaxation time or the camaraderie of the sauna).”

Tanjaniina Laukkanen, an author of those studies and a researcher at the University of Eastern Finland, tells Shots in an email that the team believes both heat and relaxation are important factors. Heart rate increases with full-body heat exposure. That helps improve cardiac output.

Saunas also seem to improve the function of the blood vessels. Christopher Minson, a professor of human physiology at the University of Oregon, studies the effects of heat — in his case, hot water immersion — on the human body. He says that like exercise, heat is a global stressor, with likely a host of beneficial mechanisms throughout the body. He’s researching heat therapy for people who are unable to get the full benefits of exercise, such as people with spinal cord injuries.

This comparison to exercise doesn’t mean you should skip working out if you’re physically able to do it. Another study from Laukkanen’s team suggests that there are some independent effects of cardiovascular exercise and sauna use, and that the men who were in good aerobic shape and frequently hit the sauna had better cardiovascular outcomes than those who only fit one of those categories.

So should we all be taking a regular sauna? Redberg’s 2015 editor’s note said that “clearly time in the sauna is time well spent.” She elaborated in a recent email to Shots, saying that that study and subsequent ones show an association between sauna use and some positive health outcomes such as lower blood pressure and possible relief from musculoskeletal pain and headaches. Saunas are among the relaxing and stress-relieving activities she recommends to patients, including massage, yoga and Pilates. She also recommends physical activity, especially walking.

Of course, there are cautions. People who faint or who have low blood pressure might want to be careful, or at least drink a lot of water before and after, which is good advice for all sauna-goers. If you have unstable heart disease, you should be cautious and consult a doctor first.

And what about the infrared saunas that are trendy now?

While traditional saunas heat up the surrounding air to about 185 degrees, which in turn heats you, infrared saunas (also called far-infrared saunas) only reach about 140 degrees, according to a 2009 review of evidence on infrared saunas and cardiovascular health. But the infrared rays penetrate more deeply into the body, which means you start sweating at a lower temperature than in a traditional sauna. That produces a lighter demand on the cardiovascular system, similar to moderate walking, according to the review, and so might benefit people who are sedentary for medical reasons. It’s also good for people who like the idea of a sauna, but find the high heat unpleasant.

The review, which covered nine studies, found “limited moderate evidence” for improvement in blood pressure and symptoms of congestive heart failure with infrared saunas, and some limited evidence for improvement in chronic pain. Infrared saunas are also a part of waon therapy, used in Japan, which consists of 15-minute stints in the heat followed by 30 minutes of reclined rest, wrapped in a towel. (Sign me up!) Evidence suggests waon therapy can benefit people with heart failure.

Laukkanen says her group’s work can’t be applied directly to infrared saunas, and that more studies are needed to suss out their longer-term benefits. Whatever kind appeals to you, just don’t think that you are “sweating out toxins” to the benefit of your health (a frequent marketing claim). Toxin removal is chiefly the job of the kidneys and liver, not your sweat.

Katherine Hobson is a freelance health and science writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She’s on Twitter: @katherinehobson.

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Kicked Out Of Air Force For Being Gay, Helen Grace James Wins Honorable Discharge

Helen Grace James holds images from her time in the Air Force.

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Helen Grace James won her honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force this week — at the age of 90. It is a battle she fought for 60 years.

Helen Grace James grew up in Pennsylvania, where she worked her family’s farm, and asked her mother to call her Jim. She played with toy trucks and boats, and gave the dolls she was given to her sister.

Helen Grace James’ father served in World War I; she saw her cousins ship off to serve during World War II.

“The military was something I thought was really important,” she told The Washington Post.

She enlisted in the Air Force in 1952, and had a fine service record. She was promoted to Airman 2nd Class.

But when she was stationed at Roslyn Air Force Base on Long Island, Airman James came under investigation by the Office of Special Investigation. One night in the winter of 1955, she sat with a friend in her car to eat sandwiches when an officer shined a blinding light into her eyes and took her into custody. She was later interrogated for hours. Investigators told Helen Grace James that if she didn’t sign a statement they put in front of her, they would tell her family she was gay.

Gay might not have been the word military investigators used in 1955.

Helen Grace James signed. She was discharged as “undesirable.”

America was then in the midst of what would become known as a Lavender Scare, parallel to the Red Scare directed at suspected or rumored communists. Gays were also considered subversive, and susceptible to blackmail, so therefore a security risk in government or military service. Soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen were ordered to inform on those with whom they served if they suspected them to be gay. Yale Law professor William N. Eskridge Jr. estimates in his book, Dishonorable Passions, that between 2,000 and 5,000 people who may have been gay were dismissed from the military during those years.

Helen Grace James, who served her country with distinction, received no severance pay or veterans’ health care coverage. She had no assistance from the GI bill to go to college, but worked her way to advanced degrees in physical therapy from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford, and went on to a distinguished career. She had worked through channels for decades to try to upgrade her discharge, and finally sued the Air Force this month — at the age of 90.

“The Air Force recognizes me as a full person in the military,” she told NBC this week of her honorable discharge, after doing “my job helping to take care of the country I love.”

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Sexual Assault Survivor Speaks Out Against Former USA Gymnastics Doctor

Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to file a criminal complaint against Larry Nassar, the former doctor for USA Gymnastics. Nassar has admitted to sexually assaulting minors.

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Rachael Denhollander was 15 the first time she went to see Larry Nassar, then the doctor for USA Gymnastics. Denhollander didn’t tell anyone of authority about how he sexually assaulted her until years later, in 2004, when she was working as a gymnastics coach.

Nassar has admitted to sexually assaulting minors. He has been sentenced to 60 years in prison for charges related to child pornography, but has not yet been sentenced in a state case for sexually assaulting the athletes.

The sentencing hearing for the Ingham County, Mich., case started on Tuesday. As NPR previously reported, before issuing Nassar’s sentence, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina is giving all of those assaulted by Nassar a chance to speak. Olympic gold medalists Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber spoke on Friday and condemned the abuse and actions of Nassar, as well as what they see as the inaction and inability to protect athletes from USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Olympians Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney and Gabby Douglas also have said they are survivors of sexual abuse by Nassar.

Denhollander was the first person to file a criminal complaint against Nassar in 2016. That led to more than 100 women coming forward saying they also had been victims of his abuse. Denhollander contacted The Indianapolis Star after the paper published an investigation about sexual abuse within USA Gymnastics.

Denhollander testified for nearly three hours during the preliminary examination for the child pornography case against Nassar, and she will be the last of at least 120 women to speak during the sentencing hearing, which continues next week.

She says while she’s not sure of exactly what she will say, she will address Nassar and those watching.

“This is the greatest sexual assault scandal in sports history,” Denhollander says. “Larry is arguably the most prolific pedophile in history. And it is imperative that we learn some very serious lessons from what has happened here.”

Denhollander spoke with All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly about the abuse she experienced, the trial and her feelings toward gymnastics today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On women speaking at the sentencing hearing

It really is an empowering thing. It is an incredibly difficult thing to face your abuser, but to see all of these survivors able to stand up and to look Larry in the eye, and to speak the truth about what he did, and to put the shame and the blame and the guilt exactly where it belongs — on Larry and on Larry alone — is an incredible thing to witness.

On when she first told someone about the abuse

I first spoke up to an authority figure in 2004. I was coaching gymnastics at that point and one of the young gymnasts that I coached was going to be sent to him for treatment for hip pain. She was only 7 or 8, and I thought I couldn’t let that happen. So I did disclose parts of the abuse — not all of it, but parts of the abuse — and told the coach at the gym that he had sexually assaulted me under the guise of treatment, and that no gymnast should be seeing him.

On what happened when she spoke out

The response to that was not malicious in any way shape or form — I consider that coach a good friend still to this day — but she didn’t know what to do with it. And so she did continue to send gymnasts to Larry up until the point that she stopped coaching at that gym.

On if Nassar’s behavior was an open secret

Absolutely … many of the dancers, the gymnasts, the people who saw him would talk about the treatments. And the conclusion was, “Well this must be medical treatment, because he’d never be allowed near us if it wasn’t.” And as a 15-year-old that was my thought process.

As I lay on that exam table, it was very clear to me that this was something Larry did regularly. I knew if it was something Larry did regularly — that he was seeing girls every day, including our elite gymnasts — that there was no way someone had not described before what Larry was doing.

And so the only conclusion that I could come to was that it had to be a legitimate medical treatment, because surely the adults that heard the description of what he was doing would have done something if it wasn’t, and he would have never been near me. And that thought process caused me to lay still.

On how she views gymnastics now

The sexual assault itself does not color my view of gymnastics — I think it is an incredible, beautiful sport, that there is so much good that can come from it. But the way USA [Gymnastics] has created a culture in gymnastics absolutely has colored my view. Because the reality is that Larry is not the problem, Larry is the symptom of the problem. The reason Larry was able to have access to so many children for so long is because you had two major institutions who looked the other way.

NPR’s Kat Lonsdorf produced the audio for this story. NPR’s Wynne Davis adapted it for Web.

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Government Shuts Down As Congress Fails To Pass Funding Measure

The U.S. Capitol is seen as lawmakers worked to avert a government shutdown Friday in Washington, D.C.

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Updated at 12:22 a.m. ET

The federal government is now in a partial shutdown after Congress failed to pass a stopgap measure to keep funding going ahead of a midnight deadline.

It’s an unprecedented situation given that shutdowns usually happen in times of divided government. But this is the first time it’s happened with one party controlling both Congress and the White House.

Since most government offices won’t open again until Monday, there is time over the weekend for legislators to reach a compromise, and House members have been kept in Washington, D.C., in case that happens.

At midnight, talks among Senate leaders were still happening on the Senate floor after a procedural vote late Friday lacked the 60 yes votes needed to advance a four-week funding bill that the House passed on Thursday.

Around 12:15 a.m. ET, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell voted no on the stopgap measure, doing so for procedural reasons that allowed him to the preserve the ability to bring up a substitute bill later. The final vote was 50-49, with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, absent from the vote.

The apparent congressional paralysis risked overshadowing the first anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration and capped off a year defined at times by chaos and frustration from both the White House and congressional Republicans despite their unified control of Washington.

And it comes after days of hurried negotiations to find a compromise failed, leading to finger-pointing from both parties eager to shift the blame to the other side.

Republicans and McConnell were angling for a four-week continuing resolution, that included extending the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for six years in an effort to entice Democrats to vote for the insurance program they want to fund.

But Democrats and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., were pushing to include an immigration measure that would include a pathway to citizenship for roughly 700,000 immigrants enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program the Trump administration rescinded last year. Democrats wanted a pathway to citizenship for those roughly 700,000 immigrants who were in the country illegally after being brought here as children.

Republicans blamed Democrats for angling for the DACA legislative fix over keeping the government open, using the hashtag #SchumerShutdown and launching an accompanying website focused on Schumer.

Shortly before midnight, the White House released a statement blasting Democrats as “obstructionist losers.”

“Senate Democrats own the Schumer Shutdown. Tonight, they put politics above our national security, military families, vulnerable children, and our country’s ability to serve all Americans. We will not negotiate the status of unlawful immigrants while Democrats hold our lawful citizens hostage over their reckless demands. This is the behavior of obstructionist losers, not legislators,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said. “When Democrats start paying our armed forces and first responders we will reopen negotiations on immigration reform. During this politically manufactured Schumer Shutdown, the President and his Administration will fight for and protect the American people.”

However, the hashtag #TrumpShutdown was also trending on Twitter late Friday night, and Democrats believe that it’s Republicans who will end up shouldering the majority of blame from the public given the GOP controls both Congress and the White House.

Trump appeared to complicate efforts to reach a compromise over the past weeks, at first signaling he would sign any immigration deal but then rejecting a bipartisan proposal, bending to his conservative, hardline base and insisting any deal had to have funding for his trademark border wall. And negotiations further stalled after Trump reportedly used a vulgarity in questioning why the U.S. should welcome immigrants from Africa instead of places like Norway. (Trump has denied that he used that language.)

Polling released Friday from both Washington Post/ABC News and CNN found that most Americans would blame Trump and Republicans over Democrats in the event a shutdown occurred. However, CNN also found a majority said approving a budget deal was more important than finding a way to advance DACA.

As NPR’s Brian Naylor reported, if the shutdown continues, essential services will continue and essential workers would remain on the job, though unpaid. Active duty military will be unaffected, along with postal services. In a change from the last time the government shut down in October 2013, the Interior Department announced they will work to keep national parks open and “as accessible as possible.”

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L.A. Coroner: Tom Petty's Death Was Due To An Accidental Overdose

Tom Petty performing at Wrigley Field, Chicago, in June 2017. The coroner said Friday that he died of an overdose of a combination of drugs in October.

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The death of rocker Tom Petty in October 2017 came as a result of an accidental drug overdose with a toxic mix of drugs taken for several ailments, including a fractured hip.

The results of an autopsy were released Friday by Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner Jonathan Lucas.

Petty died at 66 of “multisystem organ failure due to resuscitated cardiopulmonary arrest due to mixed drug toxicity,” according to a brief statement.

The drugs listed included “fentanyl, oxycodone, temazepam, alprazolam, citalopram, acetylfentanyl, and despropionyl fentanyl.”

Fetanyl is often mentioned in the public discussion of the opioid crisis and so too in the Petty family’s statement:

“As a family we recognize this report may spark a further discussion on the opioid crisis and we feel that it is a healthy and necessary discussion and we hope in some way this report can save lives. Many people who overdose begin with a legitimate injury or simply do not understand the potency and deadly nature of these medications.”

The family said Petty had “suffered from many serious ailments including emphysema, knee problems and most significantly a fractured hip.” They added that on the day he died he had been informed that his hip was, in fact, “a full on break” and the associated pain likely caused his overdose.

Petty died on October 2, 2017, shortly after finishing a summer tour marking the 40th anniversary of his band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

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Federal Charge Brought In Assault On Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul

A Kentucky man who allegedly tackled his neighbor, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, in a dispute over their adjacent yards has been charged with assaulting a member of Congress resulting in personal injury, a felony under federal law.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Indiana announced the charge brought against Bowling Green, Ky., resident Rene A. Boucher.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.

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The 59-year old Boucher has agreed to plead guilty to the federal charge.

The attack, in November, left Paul with six broken ribs and forced him to temporarily sit out the debate in Washington over the Trump administration’s tax bill.

Rene Boucher after his arrest in 2017.

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The incident between the two neighbors, both successful doctors, in an upscale gated community drew national attention.

According to the statement issued by U.S. Attorney Josh J. Minkler:

“On November 3, 2017, the victim was mowing his yard while wearing headphones. Boucher allegedly witnessed the victim stack brush onto a pile near the victim’s property and “had enough.” Boucher ran onto the victim’s property and tackled the victim. As a result of this assault, the victim suffered multiple fractured ribs and subsequently contracted and required medical attention for pneumonia. Boucher admitted the assault but denied it was politically motivated.”

Boucher faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Bradley P. Shepherd.

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Justice Department To Retry Sen. Robert Menendez And Friend In Corruption Case

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez in front of the courthouse in Newark, N.J., after the judge in the case declared a mistrial.

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The Department of Justice intends to retry Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Salomon Melgen, after a federal judge declared a mistrial in the bribery and fraud case.

The notice, filed Friday, was brief and requested a retrial “at the earliest possible date.”

“The decision to retry this case was made based on the facts and the law, following a careful review,” the department explained in a statement. “The conduct alleged in the indictment is serious and warrants retrial before a jury of citizens in the District of New Jersey.”

Justice Department prosecutors had accused Menendez and Melgen, a wealthy Florida ophthalmologist, of engaging in a bribery scheme that lasted seven years, trading gifts and trips for government favors.

As Joseph Hernandez of member station WHYY has reported:

“Melgen flew Menendez around on his private jet, paid for the senator to travel to Paris and the Dominican Republic, and gave handsome political contributions to groups that benefited Menendez.

“In return, the government alleged, Menendez helped Melgen secure travel visas for his foreign girlfriends, intervened on the doctor’s behalf in an $8.9 million Medicare overbilling case and tried to sort out a contract dispute at one of Melgen’s companies in the Dominican Republic.”

But in November a 12-person jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict on any of the bribery, conspiracy, fraud or false statements charges facing the two men.

At the time, Menendez issued a statement to his detractors: “To those who were digging my political grave so that they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you,” he said.

Menendez is the son of Cuban immigrants and has long been held up as a hero within the Cuban community in northern Jersey where he grew up. Union City, where the senator served as mayor, is home to so many Cubans its nickname is “Havana on the Hudson.”

A retrial now could jeopardize Menendez’s bid for reelection this year.

Both defendants have denied committing any crimes, saying instead that the exchanges between them are explained by their close friendship.

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