Heat stress is an important way of optimizing heat shock proteins (HSP) inside your cells that trigger mitochondrial biogenesis, thereby supporting your overall health, especially your cardiovascular, cardiac and brain health.
Over time, HSP are damaged and need to be renewed. An accumulation of damaged HSP may lead to plaque formation in your brain or vascular system, and heat stress helps to prevent this chain of events. HSP are also involved in longevity, and are important for preventing muscle atrophy.
Not surprisingly, much of the research has come from Finland, where most Finns take a sauna at least once a week, and saunas are found in most private homes and even places of work. Known as a “poor man’s pharmacy,” saunas offer proven health benefits virtually anyone can enjoy.
The Many Health Benefits of Sauna Use
For example, sauna use has been shown to:
|Reduce your risk for stroke. Taking a sauna one to three times per week has been shown to lower your stroke risk by 12 percent, while daily sauna use (four to seven times a week) can reduce your risk by as much as 62 percent. Researchers suggest sauna use reduces stroke risk by lowering inflammation, reducing arterial stiffness and improving blood flow through your circulatory system.|
|Benefit your brain by increasing the production of growth factors and brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which activates brain stem cells to convert into new neurons, thereby lowering your risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s.|
|Boost your mood. The reason for this is because your body responds to heat through the production of dynorphin, the chemical opposite of endorphins. However, dynorphins sensitize your brain to endorphins, which tends to boost mood. If you’ve ever had a sauna, you’ve probably experienced this “mellowing” effect.|
|Improve fitness and athletic performance by increasing endurance, in part by boosting nitric oxide. Heat stress also increases plasma volume and blood flow to your heart, which reduces cardiovascular strain and lowers your heart rate during exercise.|
By increasing blood flow to your muscles, it also reduces fatigue, and by improving thermoregulatory control and increasing sweat rate, it allows your core body heat to remain lower even during intense exertion.
|Protect your heart by improving vascular health, blood pressure and heart rate|
|Flush toxins out of your body, including pesticides and heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic, lead and mercury. As noted in a review published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health:|
As discussed in my interview with Dr. George Yu, the mobilization of stored toxins can be further enhanced by taking niacin (vitamin B3). The niacin helps mobilize fat, freeing up toxic chemicals locked in lipophilic tissues such as your brain. When the niacin is taken in conjunction with sauna bathing, the mobilized toxins can then be safely eliminated through your sweat.
|Boost your immune function by increasing white blood cell, lymphocyte, neutrophil and basophil counts.|
|Reduce pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis and fibromyalgia, as well as headache pain. In a study of patients with fibromyalgia, a reduction in pain between 33 percent and 77 percent was noted after use of a far infrared dry sauna. Six months after the conclusion of the study, participants continued to report a reduction in pain between 28 percent and 68 percent.|
|Kill disease-causing microbes.|
|Lower inflammation and reduce oxidative stress.|
|Improve respiratory function in those with asthma, bronchitis and obstructive pulmonary disease|
|Reduce your risk of death from any cause, including sudden death from a cardiac event.|
Sauna Users Have Lower Risk of Chronic Disease
Considering that list, it’s no surprise that regular sauna users have been found to have fewer chronic health problems and lower mortality risk. They also tend to be far less prone to contract the common cold and/or influenza. These were the conclusions reached by a recent scientific review published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
For this review, which included more than 70 studies, the researchers focused on a specific type of sauna, namely dry Finnish saunas, which are typically heated to a temperature of 176 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit (80 to 100 C) with a relative humidity between 10 and 20 percent. As noted by lead author Dr. Jari Laukkanen of the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland:
“Beyond pleasure and relaxation, evidence suggests that sauna bathing has several health benefits, which include reduction in the risk of vascular diseases such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke and memory diseases. Sauna is also related to a lower risk of pulmonary diseases including asthma, pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.”
Compared to once-a-week saunas, studies included in the review showed taking a sauna four or more times a week reduced the risk of:
- Death from heart disease by 50 percent
- High blood pressure by 47 percent
- Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by 66 percent
- Respiratory diseases and pneumonia by 41 and 37 percent respectively
- Premature death from all causes by 40 percent
Sauna Use Significantly Cuts Your Risk of Dementia
Considering Alzheimer’s is now the third leading cause of death in the U.S., right behind heart disease and cancer, the protective benefits of sauna bathing cannot be overstressed. As mentioned, taking a sauna at least four times a week may cut your risk by 66 percent, compared to taking a sauna just once a week. If you’re not using the sauna at all, the risk reduction is bound to be even greater.
Sauna use has also been shown to improve focus and attention in general, which makes sense when you consider its beneficial impact on vascular function, blood flow and elimination of toxic debris from your brain. Heat stress also promotes myelin growth, thereby helping your brain repair nerve cell damage and function faster.
Your Choice in Saunas Makes a Difference
There are several types of saunas to choose from, and they all work in different ways:
- Finnish wet sauna, in which water is tossed on hot coals, generating ample amounts of steam and humidity
- Finnish dry sauna, oftentimes electric, which prevents the use of water
- Infrared saunas, which include far-infrared and near-infrared (emitters and lamps)
While Finnish saunas are most common in Europe, infrared saunas tend to be more popular in the U.S. Both will induce heat stress and make you sweat, but there are notable differences between the two types. The main difference between a far-infrared sauna and the traditional Finnish-style saunas (whether wet or dry) is the Finnish-style sauna heats you from the outside in, like an oven, whereas the infrared sauna heats you from the inside out.
Infrared saunas are particularly known for their ability to promote detoxification, and this inside-out heating is part of the reason for that, as the heat is able to penetrate deeper into your tissues.
Benefits of Near-Infrared Saunas
Most near-infrared saunas consist of full spectrum heat lamps and have additional benefits over others, including far-infrared saunas, primarily by interacting with chromophores in your body. Chromophores are light absorbing molecules found in your mitochondria and in water molecules. To ensure near-infrared rays penetrate your skin, avoid wearing clothing when using a near-infrared sauna.
Near-infrared penetrates your tissue even more effectively than far-infrared since they have wavelengths under 900 nanometers, which are not absorbed by water like the higher wavelengths in mid- and far-infrared and actually can reach deeper into your tissues to provide their therapeutic benefits.
What’s more, near-infrared targets the cytochrome c oxidase in the mitochondria, causing dissociation of nitric oxide and increasing electron transport and ATP synthesis, all of which have important benefits. In a way, you could say near-infrared helps fuel your body, as it actually triggers your mitochondria to produce additional ATP (cellular energy).
Near-infrared is also particularly beneficial for regeneration of deeper structures such as tendons, bones and cartilage; orthopedic and musculoskeletal problems. Metabolic syndrome and diabetes are two other conditions that could benefit from near-infrared light exposure.
Near-infrared even helps your body produce melatonin, which may help improve your sleep. Meanwhile, the biological effects of far-infrared are primarily related to its ability to alter protein structures and structure the water in and around your cells.
We now know mitochondrial dysfunction is at the heart of most health problems and chronic diseases, including many signs of aging. For these reasons, I strongly recommend using a low- or no-EMF emitting sauna that offers a full spectrum of infrared radiation, not just far-infrared.
Common Sense Safety Precautions
While most people can safely use the sauna, if you’re unfamiliar with it, start slowly, spending just five minutes or so in there to start, and build your heat tolerance to avoid overstressing your cardiovascular system. Over time, work your way up to where you can (relatively) comfortably spend up to a half-hour in the sauna.
Keep in mind that even if you can comfortably tolerate the heat, the detoxification process can in some cases be severe, depending on your toxic load. If you experience detox symptoms or feel ill after sauna bathing, try cutting down on the time you spend in there.
Also, if you are trying to have a baby, you’ll want to steer clear of the sauna. With men, as your body heat rises, so does the temperature of your testicles, reducing your fertility. This reduces your sperm count and motility (how well sperm swim). The effect is reversible, but can take up to five weeks. For women, you’ll also want to avoid the sauna during pregnancy as it may cause fetal abnormalities. Following are a few other safety factors to consider as well:
•Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Heat stress or heat stroke are real possibilities from excessive fluid loss. The potential for the effects of significant dehydration are higher when you use a sauna after a hard workout. Carry a water bottle, preferably protected glass, with you and drink frequently. Do not drink alcohol in a sauna as the alcohol and heat may trigger a cardiovascular event.
Keep in mind you’ll lose important body electrolytes when you do a sauna so it is also important to supplement with extra salt. Either salt your food more, or put a half-teaspoon of Himalayan salt in 2 ounces of water and flavor it with lemon or lime juice and use it as salt shot.
•If you experience a headache after using a sauna or hot tub, you may want to use a cool rag over your head so your body will cool more easily. Your core temperature will still rise, but the experience may be more pleasant.
•A sauna is supposed to be relaxing and not a torture chamber. Your body is designed to function optimally at 98.6 F (37 C). Raising your core temperature above 104.8 F (40.4 C) is a medical emergency. Staying in a sauna longer than you should, or becoming severely dehydrated, can lead to death.
Avoid using a sauna by yourself; always sauna with a buddy. And always listen to your body when deciding how much heat stress you can tolerate. If you’re ill or heat-sensitive, decrease the temperature, time spent in the sauna or both.
•Steer clear of public saunas that are not thoroughly and carefully cleaned between clients. Remember, saunas detoxify your body of heavy metals, which are released in your sweat. When you enter a sauna that hasn’t been cleaned you can potentially absorb the heavy metals and toxins from the previous client through your skin.
Health centers offering sauna therapy have rigorous cleansing protocols in place between each patient, which is something you likely will not find in your local gym or other places offering saunas for public use. Ideally, consider purchasing your own for use at home.