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Many health and wellness trends are well known by most people. Everyone knows that daily exercise/movement, eating a lot vegetables, and sleeping eight hours every night are supremely important for your long term health, but there are also quite a few health/wellness strategies that many people have yet to learn of. One of the most promising of those lesser known health/wellness practices is sauna usage.
A sauna is a room designed to stay at a high temperature in order to physically experience dry or wet heat sessions. Regular saunas operate using a central heat source and usually range in temperature from 167–212 °F (75-100 °C), and have nearly zero humidity in order to not scald the skin. Steam rooms have a humidity nearly at 100%, but they are kept much cooler (104 °F, 40 °C) in order to not scald the skin from the water vapor. Infrared saunas use infrared light to heat up the body, though from the inside out rather than from the outside in like traditional saunas. While in a sauna, your body temperature will rise to 100 °F (38 °C), and you’ll begin to perspire. Trust me, it feels great!
A common component of many gyms now, accessing and using a sauna has never been easier, and below are five incredible reasons why you should use a sauna at least 3x a week, if not daily!
Who doesn’t want to live longer, and healthier? Well consistent sauna usage has been shown to increase longevity and as you’ll read below, improve your well-being! First, a bit of background:
When you place your body into a sufficiently heated environment, something called heat shock proteins (HSP) throughout the body are activated.
In the presence of heat stress, these heat shock proteins (HSP) help protect the body by scavenging free radicals (unstable atoms that can damage cells) and also by supporting cellular antioxidant capacity.
HSPs can also repair damaged proteins, helping them return to their proper structure and function. Structurally intact proteins are critical for maintaining normal functioning cellular mechanisms.
By using the sauna consistently, you’re effectively assisting your body to run properly on a cellular level. Think of it as washing your dishes. When your dirty dishes start to stack sky high, you create a lot of junk and clutter that needs to be cleaned. The same thing happens on a cellular level!
And the research supports this:
Brief heat exposure for yeast, flies, and worms increases their lifespan by up to 15%(1,2,3,4). The triggering of the HSPs was directly shown to be responsibly for the 15% lifespan increase.
To track longevity increases in humans who consistently use the sauna would be very difficult, but a few human studies have been done, and they have resulted in some incredible findings:
A 20+ year study followed 2315 men from Finland 40-60 years old and found that sauna usage 4-7 times a week for sessions >19 mins on average experienced a 40% reduction in all cause mortality (death from anything)(5). Factor out freak accidents like a car crash and that 40% value is actually higher*!
Additionally, the same study also found that sauna usage 4-7 times a week for sessions >19 minutes had a 48% lower risk of heart attack or fatal heart disease over those that used the sauna just once a week (an already pretty healthy baseline)(5).
This one Finnish study is compelling, and it’s also backed up with thousands of years of anecdotal evidence linking sauna usage and increased longevity throughout history. More studies on sauna usage are now being performed, and I expect the data linking sauna usage to improving longevity to only strengthen.
*Note - I think it’s also important to note that people who are using the sauna 4-7 times a week are likely lead a much healthier lifestyle on average, also making sure to eat more whole unprocessed foods, prioritize sleep, and exercise more.
Sauna usage has been shown to reliability increase sleep among people that use them regularly. One study involving police offers using the sauna for four weeks saw their 5.8 hours of sleep per night pre-intervention to 7.6 hours per night post-intervention(6). That’s a 1.8 hour (30%) increase! Depending on your body, experts recommend 7-9 hours of sleep per night for adults. The secret to increasing your beneficial sleep comes from the release of endorphins.
After using the sauna, the body releases a steady stream of endorphins that lasts for several hours (7,8,9). Endorphines are the same as morphine, which is well known for its ability to ease pain, relax the body, and induce sleep, except endorphines are produced naturally within the body. During the day, pursuing activities that release endorphins (exercise, sauna, meditation, sex) is a great way to prime your body to easily fall asleep at night.
Sauna usage can also help manage depression. In a study with cancer patients, the patients who experienced whole body heat therapy (from a radiant heater) were markedly less depressed, angry, and tense for 72 hours post-treatment compared to pre-treatment(10).
Using the sauna consistently will even have a semi-permanent effect on improving your everyday well-being. Using the sauna is a acutely stressful event for the body, so as the heat stress builds up the body releases dynorphin, an opiod which gives you feelings of dsyphoria. To counter that short term release of dynorphin, the body increases the sensitivity and production of beta-endorphin receptors. Even better is that these changes are semi-permanent!
Burn Calories and Fat
Burn calories and kill off fat cells, who doesn’t want that?! Well sauna usage does exactly that. Finnish researchers followed 102 participants pre and post sauna usage. Using the sauna resulted in the decrease of systolic and diastolic blood pressure and arterial stiffness, and just like cardiovascular exercise, increased the participants heart rate similar to levels seen with mild cardiovascular exercise(11). Over a period of 30 minutes using the sauna can burn anywhere from 100 to 200 calories depending on your height, weight, and temperature. And you won’t be reaching for food anytime soon because who ever felt starving after using the sauna?
Compared to control, 38 obese patients using the sauna consistently over two weeks saw a significant drop in body-weight with both groups eating 1800 calories per day(12). The increased caloric burn from using the sauna is likely responsible for that weight-loss with calories equated.
But it gets even better. Burn fat, and keep it off! When exposed to heat stress, fat cells are injured and undergo cellular apoptosis (cellular death), while other nearby tissues are like the skin and muscle are more resilient(13). While fat cells can increase or decrease in volume, most experts agree that once a fat cell has been created, it doesn’t go away. The more fat cells you have, the more fat storage potential you have, which in today’s times is not good, so reducing your number of fat cells is a great way to lose bodyfat and keep it off.
Also important for proper weight control and nutrient partitioning (towards muscle instead of fat) is insulin sensitivity. Sauna usage has been shown to decrease blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity over a short time frame, and these likely results in semi-permanent improvements of both. These improvements were seen in cultured endothelial cells (cells that line blood vessels) and cardiomyocyte (heart muscle cells), both cells that belong to the cardiovascular system(14). With improved insulin sensitivity you gain greater lifestyle and diet calorically flexibility. Eat more and partition those nutrients towards muscle building, fantastic!
Remember that incredible study which follow 2315 Finnish men for 20+ years? For the group that used the sauna the most, it was shown they had a 65% reduced risk of developing Alzhiemer’s Disease or other dementia(5). Amazing results, but how? When proteins unravel, they tend to clump together, forming protein plaques. It is the protein beta-amyloid which disassembles and clumps in the brain that causes Alzhiemer’s disease. Heat shock proteins (HSPs), the very proteins released during heat stress help to repair damaged proteins. By using the sauna consistently, you’re essentially giving your brain (and body) a mini tune-up!
Another important factor for brain health is the hormone BDNF (brain-derived neutotrophic factor). BDNF is important in the formation of long term memories through its influence on brain plasticity. BDNF has been shown to reliably increase during running, believed partly to be an effect from the increased body temperature(15). Due to the similarities between sauna usage and cardiovascular exercise, sauna usage is believed to also stimulate the release of BDNF.
Memory formation and recall is of the utmost importance for retaining a sharp mind, and there are many neurotransmitters which are responsible for memory creation. Norepinephrine is one of those neurotransmitters, and it’s released during stressful moments, helping to focus, strengthen, and store new memories through its effect on brain plasticity(16). In one study, eight young men used the sauna and were measured afterwards with norepinphrine levels 310% over baseline(17)! Heat exposure is an acute stressor, so the release of norepinephrine during and after sauna usage makes sense. Have something you particularly need to study or remember? Be sure to use the sauna beforehand!
Building muscle ultimately boils down to the interplay of muscle protein synthesis (building muscle) and muscle degradation (losing muscle). If your muscle protein synthesis is higher than muscle degradation, then you’ll build muscle, and no matter how high muscle protein synthesis is, if muscle degradation is higher then muscle will be lost. When the two are in balance then muscle is maintained.
All this is great, but how does sauna usage apply? Well sauna usage has been shown to have beneficial effects on both muscle protein synthesis and muscle degradation.
Sauna usage increases muscle protein synthesis
One of the most fascinating effects of the sauna the tremendous surge of growth hormone (GH) that it causes(18). Often construed by the media by its association with steroid usage, GH is a vital bodily hormone responsible for maintaining healthy tissues, joints, skin, and hair. Downstream of GH is IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1), which is synthesized in response to growth hormone. IGF-1 is thought to be the main driver behind many of the anabolic effects of GH. IGF-1 activates the mTOR (a type of protein enzyme) pathway, which triggers muscle protein synthesis, and IGF-1 inhibits activation of FOXO proteins, consequently inhibiting protein degradation(19). In one study, for seven days study participants had two one-hour dry sauna sessions a day at 176°F (80°C). On the third day GH was observed as having increased 1600%, a tremendous increase(20). Mind you the study parameters were a bit extreme, but beneficial (GH) releases have been observed at lower levels of sauna usage too, such as two 15-minute dry sauna sessions at 212°F (100°C) resulting in a 500% increase in GH(17)!
And as mentioned earlier, improved insulin sensitivity brought on by sauna usage helps to better partition nutrient towards muscular tissue, increasing muscle mass.
Sauna usage helps with recovery and reduces muscle degradation
Returning to heat shock proteins (HSPs), due to their cellular cleanup roles, they also help to prevent or mitigate oxidative stress by maintaining optimal glutathione levels (a naturally produced anti-oxidant) and through the scavenging of free radicals. HSPs also as previously mentioned repair damaged proteins, and this applies to the damaged proteins found in damaged muscle fibers after injury or exercise.
When not in use, a muscle atrophies, and heat therapy using animals at 105.8°F (41°C) was shown to be dose dependent in reducing hindlimb muscle atrophy, with the 60 minute group stopping muscular atrophy by 32% compared to 20% for the 20 minute group(21). After atrophy occurs, muscle regrowth must occur to return to optimal health. This muscular reloading phase is particularly stressful, responsible for a lot of oxidative stress throughout the body. Again thanks to the powerful abilities of heat shock proteins (HSPs), heat therapy increases muscle regrowth during a muscular reloading phase compared to control(22).
Get your sweat on
The sauna is clearly a powerful tool someone can use to dramatically improve their health, well-being, physique, and more. These profoundly beneficial increases in longevity, increased muscle mass, reduced body fat, improved mental clarity, and improved well-being are mainly due to the release of heat shock proteins from the heat stress and the massive surge of growth hormone afterwards.
As more research is done on sauna usage I expect the evidence for their positive effect on the body to become overwhelming in magnitude, and soon using the sauna will be seen just the same as exercising. Who knows, maybe it’ll be just as popular one day too! As long as they make bigger saunas I’m fine with that.
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Stefan Burns is the creator and main author of Wild Free Organic. A swimmer in high school, soon afterwards he discovered a passion for the health, wellness, and fitness fields. Stefan is a jack of all trades, expertly knowing how to use all the different wellness “tools” available to radically and permanently transform one’s health, from fasting and sauna usage to calisthenics and powerlifting.
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