5 little known benefits of saunas

Saunas have been used for thousands of years.  There are different types of saunas: wet sauna and dry sauna.  A wet sauna isn’t like a steam room, you just add water to the heating elements (rocks) and the sauna gets much hotter.  A dry sauna is simply that, a sauna that is heated to 79º C or 174º F.  

There’s a dry sauna and an IR sauna.  An IR sauna sort of bakes you from the inside so it’s good to heat you up.  A dry sauna kinda dries out our nose, but the heat response has a lot of extra health benefits.  So what..sit in a hot box for 20-40 minutes.  What are the benefits, you may very well ask?

Longevity

Typically, you don’t associate saunas and longevity, but a paper published in the Journal of Internal Medicine in April of 2015 by Laukkanen, T., Kahn, H,  Zaccardi, F., et al., Association Between Sauna Bathing and Fatal Cardiovascular and All-Cause Mortality Events showed the long-term effects of saunas.  The study followed 2,315 men between the ages of 42 and 60 over the course of 20.7 years. Death from cardiovascular disease was 50% lower in men who used the sauna 4-7x per week for >20 minutes in each session compared to men who only used the sauna once a week.  So, if you don’t die, you actually live longer, don’t you?

Mental Acuity and Mood Enhancement

One big benefit of saunas is the improvement in mental acuity and mood enhancement.  The mood enhancement results afterwards because while you’re in the sauna it should be somewhat uncomfortable.  But there’s more to it.  When you’re in a sauna your norepinephrine increases, i.e., fight or flight hormone.  This alone increases you mental acuity but you also get a boost of another hormone called prolactin which increases the myelin sheath around the nerve cells in your brain so you can actually think faster.

Twenty minutes in a sauna triggers the release of an opioid called dynorphin.  Dynorphin is the opposite of beta-endorphins or feel-good opioid.  So, Dynorphin is the feel-bad chemical.  But your body is also producing beta-Endorphins to make you feel good.  When you’re in the sauna these two chemicals are duking it out.  But when you leave the sauna the Dynorphin production drops way down, but the beta-Endorphins are still being cranked out.  The result is you feel good after leaving the sauna.  

Performance Enhancement

Heat is a major problem in most sports, especially running long distances.  If you can acclimatize you body to handle heat, you’ll perform much better.  This is always a concern during the Summer Olympics for the endurance events like the 5,000 m, 10,000 m, and marathon.  Saunas can be very beneficial for getting your body ready for the heat.  Frank Shorter and Kenny Moore both used saunas.  Saunas also increases blood flow resulting in more glucose being delivered to the cells resulting in more energy production.  There’s also an improvement in oxygen delivery.  A paper by Scoon, G.S., Hopkins, W.G., Mayhew, S. and Cotter, J.D. (2007)  Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners, Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, took participants and had them sauna two times per week for 30 minutes.  They only did this for three weeks, but the results were astounding.
“Relative to control, sauna bathing increased run time to exhaustion by 32% (90% confidence limits 21—43%), which is equivalent to an enhancement of ∼1.9% (1.3—2.4%) in an endurance time trial. Plasma and red-cell volumes increased by 7.1% (5.6—8.7%) and 3.5% (−0.8% to 8.1%) respectively, after sauna relative to control.”
There was a 32% increase in their time to exhaustion due to the increase in plasma and re-cell volumes!”

Exercise Recovery

One of the big benefits of regular sauna use is the generation of Heat Shock Proteins. I discussed Heat Shock Proteins in a previous post here.  There’s a pretty thorough discussion of the benefits of Heat Shock Proteins. Heat Shock Proteins scavange free-radicals without interfering with protein synthesis. An extra benefit is that growth hormone response skyrockets after a sauna.  And, if that weren’t enough, a sauna inhibits the FOXO gene.  This gene triggers the breakdown of muscle.

Pain Management

Exposing yourself to heat increases blood flow to your body, effectively reducing inflammation.  If you want to get the endorphin and opioid effect, then use a dry sauna.  

Conclusion

So there you go.  Some of these benefits can be life changing.  I don’t know if you think taking a sauna is a good idea or not.   But, if taking a twenty minute sauna can deliver half the benefits described above, it would certainly improve your quality of life, wouldn’t it?