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Scandinavians have long appreciated the health benefits of regular sauna use. However, only recently have saunas, particularly infrared saunas, gained global recognition as a sports-enhancing, anti-aging, mind-altering super hack. This post will explore the major reasons why sauna therapy should be a staple in your life.
Health Benefits of Sauna
1) Saunas Help Detoxification
A new study found that there were 200 toxins in a newborn babies umbilical cord, including ones, like BPA, known to cause developmental problems (R).
The skin is considered a major organ of detoxification (R).
Similarly, high mercury levels can be normalized by frequent sauna use (R).
Policemen exposed to methamphetamine had fewer symptoms after regular sauna use (R).
People who go to the sauna regularly improve their sweat-detox pathways and can produce up to 2L/hour of sweat (R).
2) Saunas Increase Longevity
A study of 2,315 Finnish men aged 42-60 found that regular sauna use led to considerably decreased risks of heart disease and a lower chance of dying from all causes (R).
Those who enjoy a sauna 4-7 times per week have a 48% lower risk of fatal heart disease or heart attack over those that used the sauna once per week (R).
Vascular endothelial dysfunction can cause chronic heart failure (CHF). Sauna therapy promotes vasodilation and improves vascular endothelial dysfunction in patients with CHF (R).
Worms exposed to heat stress for no more than 2 hours showed increased longevity. The heat stress appeared to protect the worms against age-related frailty (R).
Heat shock proteins produced during heat stress are important for basic cellular maintenance e.g. preventing harmful accumulations of unhealthy proteins. Flies repeatedly exposed to heat stress had a significant increase in lifespan, correlating with higher levels of heat shock proteins (Hsp70) (R).
Yeast exposed to mild heat stressors lived longer (possibly due to RAS genes) (R).
Heat stress acts as a hormetic response that reduces protein damage and boosts antioxidant activity, as well as repair and degradation processes (autophagy) (R).
3) Saunas Help Recovery
Sauna use can increase IGF-1, a vital hormone for growth an recovery. One study found a 142% increase in IGF-1 during sauna use. Another study found a five-fold increase in the growth hormone with two 15 minute sessions at a very hot 212 degrees F (R).
Saunas improve blood flow, thereby delivering more nutrients to areas that need them for recovery (R).
Sauna use prior to wrist extensions improved muscular function in the wrist (R).
Studies have shown that sauna use at 41C or more can lower the risk of muscle wastage during disuse. Similarly beneficial is the effect that sauna use can have on minimizing the oxidative stress that occurs when returning to exercise after a period of recovery (R, R2, R3)
4) Saunas Increase Happiness and Lower Stress Levels
In fact, whole-body heat therapy has also been shown to improve symptoms of depression in cancer patients through this mechanism (R).
A long sauna session can be quite stressful on the body (albeit a beneficial, hormetic stress). As a result, we release an opioid called dynorphin, which gives you a feeling of dysphoria. To compensate, the brain then increases the production and sensitivity of receptors for euphoric hormones like beta-endorphin. These changes are semi-permanent, meaning that people that use a sauna will actually be happier in everyday life (R).
5) Saunas Lower Blood Sugar
Insulin resistant, diabetic mice were given 30 minutes of hyperthermic treatment, three times per week for twelve weeks.
The mice had a 31% decrease in insulin levels and remarkably lowered blood sugar levels, both suggesting increased insulin sensitivity (due to an increase in GLUT 4 transporters) (R).
6) Saunas Increase Muscle Mass
Sauna therapy causes net muscle growth.
During a sauna, your body releases massive amounts of heat shock proteins (HSPs). These HSPs help prevent oxidative stress (a cause of muscle breakdown) by scavenging free radicals and maintaining healthy glutathione levels (R, R2).
7) Saunas Lead to Better Mental Performance
Heat stress also increases prolactin, a hormone which encourages the growth of myelin (the insulation around the nerve fibers in your brain), which determines how fast your brain works (R).
8) Saunas Lead to Better Physical Performance
Increased body temperature from endurance exercise can cause strain and, ultimately, decrease performance. Regular sauna use can acclimate the body to function optimally during increased temperatures, while also improving its cooling mechanisms. This technique is called hyperthermic conditioning and can be very useful for events held in hot climates e.g. iron man Hawaii (R).
Sauna use improves the body’s blood flow to muscles. More blood flow equals more glucose, essential fatty acids, and oxygen. This results in less glycogen depletion during workouts. In fact, one study found that sauna use decreased glycogen depletion by 40-50% (R, R2).
Regular sauna use can increase red blood cell count – meaning more oxygen can be transported around the body during exercise (R).
Individuals who used the sauna twice a week for half an hour post-workout were able to run for an average of 32% longer until exhaustion than before the sauna therapy (R).
Heat therapy has been shown to protect against rhabdomyolysis, a break down of muscle from too much exertion. The increase in heat shock proteins (HSP32) from sauna use can limit the damage of rhabdomyolysis on the kidneys (R).
9) Saunas Help Relieve Pain
In one study, sauna use was, when stacked with other therapies, effective in managing rheumatoid arthritis (R).
Saunas can cause the release of endorphins, opioid-like chemicals which act as natural pain-killers.
Sauna therapy was found to be effective at lessening the pain experienced by someone with fibromyalgia. Many of the benefits are immediate and probably due to tissues made of collagen, like tendons and fascia, become more flexible when exposed to increased temperatures. However, many of the benefits actually persisted months after the treatment (R).
10) Saunas Increase Stress Resilience
Sauna use acts as a hormetic stress i.e. the body responds to the heat stress by increasing heat shock proteins that counteract environmental stress. This means that sauna use will make you more resilient in the face of toxins, extreme temperatures, and exercise.
11) Saunas Benefit Skin Health
A study showed that regular Finnish sauna use had a positive effect on skin health, especially surface pH and its hydration (R).
In the same study, sauna use resulted in less oil on the forehead of participants. Therefore, a sauna might be a good treatment for oily, acne-prone skin (R).
12) Saunas Might Create EZ Water In Your Cells
Dr. Gerald Pollack found that you could increase the exclusion zone of water by shining infrared light through it.
Infrared saunas should have the same effect to the water in your body, according to Pollack. This might be why cold showers make you feel so good – because infrared energy is moving from your core to your skin to keep you warm.
13) Saunas Help Weight Loss
Saunas are probably such an effective detox strategy because adequate heat can cause the death of fat cells (R).
Increasing heat shock proteins can reduce fat mass in animals (R).
10 obese subjects underwent 15-minute daily far infrared sauna sessions and followed an 1800 calorie per day diet for a 2-week period. The authors concluded, “We consider that repeated sauna therapy is useful in the treatment of obesity (R).
14) Sauna Use Helps Manage Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
One study demonstrated that an infrared sauna session (60 degrees C, 140 F) every day, for a total of 15-25 days, was enough to significantly improve symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome (fatigue, pain, sleep disturbance, and low-grade fever) (R).
For people with chronic fatigue syndrome, infrared sauna therapy might be more effective and have longer lasting effects, than prednisone (R).
Sick people are often told to avoid saunas as they are stressful on the body. However, a study of 10 CFS sufferers found no adverse effects from repeated infrared sauna therapy at 60 degrees C/140 degrees F (R).
15) Saunas Are Beneficial For Cancer Sufferers
All the way back in 1891, Dr. William Coley published a paper on how creating a fever in the body of a cancer patient might stimulate the immune response and cause cancer remission.
More recently, a 2009 study on mice found that, in just 30 days, far infrared therapy reduced tumor volumes by 86% (R).
Researchers in Japan also found that whole-body hyperthermia with far infrared therapy slowed the growth of breast cancer tumors in mice without any adverse side effects (R).
Another study showed that sauna treatment at just 43 °C (109.4 degrees F) for 60 minutes caused the death of bone cancer cells (R).
Sauna therapy increases the effectiveness of conventional cancer treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy (R).
16) Sauna Use Helps Fight Infection
17) Sauna Therapy Treats Autoimmunity
Sauna therapy was found to be a remarkably effective therapy for people with Sjögren syndrome – a common autoimmune disorder where the body attacks it’s fluid-producing glands (R).
Rats subjected to whole-body heat therapy were significantly less affected by autoimmune myocarditis than the control group rats (R).
18) Saunas Promote Social Interaction
Sociologists have established a link between social relationships and health outcomes. Evidence shows that social relationships affect mental health, physical health, health habits, and mortality risk (R).
In a busy, work-driven world it is hard to find enough time to socialize. Saunas provide a space where people can interact and achieve the positive health benefits of socializing, whilst also achieving all the other positive effects listed in this post.
Traditional vs Infrared Saunas
Traditional saunas use hot rocks or heating elements to warm the air to between 150 and 185º F, which then warms the sauna user. On the other hand, Infrared saunas use non-visible light to directly heat the user without heating the air to such high temperatures. IR saunas are touted as being better for detoxing than normal saunas because of their deeper penetration (generally 2-6 inches) which causes more sweating.
I think both traditional and infrared work well for detoxing, but because infrared saunas operate at a lower temperature they are less stressful on the body and, therefore, are probably better for people not in optimal health.
If you want all the beneficial effects of heat shock proteins and beta-endorphins from a very hot sauna, as well as the deep penetrating infrared rays, you can insulate your sauna’s roof with insulation board. This can achieve an extra 10 degrees F.
What Goes Well With Saunas
- Drinking lots of water
- Niacin (anecdotal)
- Exercise during or before sauna use (R).
- Cold shower as soon as you get out of a sauna
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