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The Health Benefits of Sauna Use: A Comprehensive Overview

Sauna use has been a part of human culture for thousands of years, with its origins tracing back to the Nordic countries. Today, the practice is gaining recognition worldwide for its many documented health benefits. This article explores the science behind these benefits, from improved cardiovascular health to enhanced mental well-being and much more.

This Article at a Glance

  1. The Science of Sauna Use: Sauna use activates heat shock proteins, which protect cells from damage and promote cellular repair. This may contribute to health benefits and potentially increased lifespan.
  2. Cardiovascular Benefits: Regular sauna use can increase heart rate, improve cardiovascular fitness, and decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and death.
  3. Mental Health Benefits: Sauna use can improve mood and decrease symptoms of depression, potentially due to the release of endorphins.
  4. Sauna Protocol: For optimal benefits, start slowly and gradually increase the duration and intensity of sauna sessions. Hydration is crucial due to sweat loss during a sauna session.
  5. Potential Risks and Contraindications: Risks include dehydration, low blood pressure, and certain heart conditions. Pregnant women and children should exercise caution. Always consult with a healthcare provider before starting a regular sauna routine.
  6. Sauna and Glucose Levels: Glucose levels can rise temporarily during a sauna session, possibly due to changes in blood concentration due to sweating. Levels return to normal after cooling down.
  7. Future Research: More research, particularly randomized controlled trials, is needed to further explore the potential of sauna use.
  8. Sauna and Happiness: Regular sauna use may contribute to improved mood and well-being, as suggested by the high prevalence of sauna use in Finland, rated as the world’s happiest country.
  9. Limitations of Current Research: Most current research is observational, which can’t establish causality. However, the dose-dependent nature of the benefits strengthens the evidence.
  10. Personal Use: Dr. Rhonda Patrick uses the sauna in conjunction with high-intensity interval training and stays in the sauna for 20-30 minutes at a time.
  11. Conclusion: Incorporating regular sauna sessions into a healthy lifestyle contribute to overall health and longevity.

The Science of Sauna Use

Sauna use exposes the body to high temperatures, triggering various physiological responses. One of the most significant is the activation of heat shock proteins (HSPs). These proteins, produced by cells under stressful conditions, protect cells from damage and promote cellular repair1.

Regular sauna use can increase the production of HSPs, contributing to its health benefits. This physiological response is one of the key mechanisms through which sauna use can promote overall health and well-being. In fact, people with a genetic polymorphism that results in a more active heat shock protein tend to live longer, suggesting a potential link between sauna use and lifespan1.

Cardiovascular Benefits

Sauna use can increase heart rate and improve cardiovascular fitness, similar to the effects of moderate exercise2. This cardiovascular response can contribute to the health benefits of sauna use, particularly for individuals who may not be able to engage in traditional forms of exercise.

Regular sauna use has been associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and death3. A study conducted in Finland found that men who used a sauna 4-7 times per week had a 50% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who used a sauna once a week4. This suggests that regular sauna use could be a valuable tool in promoting cardiovascular health.

Mental Health Benefits

Regular sauna use can help with improved mood and decreased symptoms of depression, too. This is due to the release of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators5.

A pilot study conducted by Dr. Ashley Mason at the University of California, San Francisco, is currently investigating the potential of sauna use as a treatment for major depressive disorder6. If successful, this could open up new avenues for the treatment of mental health conditions. The potential of sauna use as an alternative treatment for depression is particularly exciting, given the additional beneficial effects like reduced death from cardiovascular disease and reduced Alzheimer’s disease risk.

Sauna Protocol

For optimal benefits, it’s recommended to start slowly and gradually increase the duration and intensity of sauna sessions. Dr. Rhonda Patrick, a leading expert in the field of aging, nutrition, and fitness, typically uses the sauna in conjunction with high-intensity interval training.

Dr. Patrick also emphasizes the importance of staying hydrated due to the amount of sweat lost during a sauna session7. This is an important consideration for anyone thinking about incorporating sauna use into their health routine. She also notes her preference to use the sauna for 20-30 minutes at a time for optimal benefits.

Potential Risks and Contraindications

While sauna use is generally safe for most people, there are potential risks and contraindications to keep in mind. These include dehydration, low blood pressure, and certain heart conditions. Pregnant women and children should also exercise caution.

It’s recommended to consult with a healthcare provider before starting a regular sauna routine8. This can help ensure that sauna use is safe and beneficial for each individual’s unique health circumstances. For instance, people with cardiac diseases, such as unstable angina pectoris or severe aortic stenosis, should avoid sauna use. Similarly, elderly people prone to low blood pressure should be cautious.

Sauna and Glucose Levels

An interesting observation related to sauna use is the temporary rise in glucose levels during a sauna session. This is possibly due to changes in blood concentration due to sweating. However, Dr. Patrick notes that this is not a concern as levels return to normal after cooling down7. This observation is particularly relevant for people using continuous glucose monitors.

Additionally, the physiological responses to heat exposure in a sauna include an increased heart rate and cortisol release, which can lead to a temporary rise in blood glucose levels. This is a normal response to stress and is part of the body’s way of ensuring that enough energy is available during a stressful situation. However, it’s important to note that these changes are temporary and glucose levels typically return to normal after the body cools down.

Heat from the sauna can affect the body’s insulin response as well. High temperatures alter how the body uses insulin, a hormone that regulates blood glucose levels. This can lead to a temporary increase in glucose levels during a sauna session. However, regular sauna use can improve insulin sensitivity, which provides benefits to glucose regulation and metabolic fitness in the long term.

Future Research

While the benefits of sauna use are promising, most of the current research is observational, which means it can’t establish causality. However, the dose-dependent nature of the benefits strengthens the evidence.

More research, particularly randomized controlled trials, is needed to further explore the potential of sauna use. This will help to solidify our understanding of the benefits of sauna use and provide more concrete guidelines for its use in promoting health. Dr. Patrick expresses a desire for more research on the benefits of sauna use, particularly randomized controlled trials7.

Sauna and Happiness

An interesting observation is made about Finland which is consistently rated as the happiest country in the world and has a high prevalence of sauna use. While there are many factors at play, the potential positive impact of regular sauna use on mood and well-being is notable7.

Sauna use is deeply ingrained in Finnish culture, with the practice being seen as more than just a pastime, but rather a way of life. The country is known to have more saunas than cars, highlighting the importance of this tradition. As outlined in this article, regular sauna use is associated with a variety of health benefits, including improved cardiovascular health, better skin health, and enhanced detoxification processes. However, one of the less tangible but equally significant benefits is its potential for positive impact on mood and overall happiness.

Studies suggest that regular sauna use can have a positive effects on mental health. Heat from the sauna can increase the production of endorphins, the body’s natural ‘feel-good’ chemicals, leading to a post-sauna ‘glow’ that can last for hours. Additionally, the act of taking time for oneself in the calming, warm environment of a sauna can also contribute to stress reduction and relaxation.

This combination of physiological and psychological benefits may play a role in the high happiness ratings reported in Finland. While many factors contribute to happiness, the potential mood-enhancing effects of regular sauna use are certainly worth considering.

Conclusion

Sauna use offers a range of documented health benefits, from improved cardiovascular health to enhanced mental well-being. Current evidence suggests that incorporating regular sauna sessions into a healthy lifestyle contribute to overall health and longevity.

1: Morimoto RI. Cells in stress: transcriptional activation of heat shock genes. Science. 1993;259(5100):1409-1410. doi:10.1126/science.8451637 Link

2: Laukkanen T, Khan H, Zaccardi F, Laukkanen JA. Association Between Sauna Bathing and Fatal Cardiovascular and All-Cause Mortality Events. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(4):542–548. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8189 Link

3: Laukkanen T, Kunutsor S, Kauhanen J, Laukkanen JA. Sauna bathing is inversely associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in middle-aged Finnish men. Age Ageing. 2017;46(2):245-249. doi:10.1093/ageing/afw212 Link

4: Laukkanen T, Khan H, Zaccardi F, Laukkanen JA. Association Between Sauna Bathing and Fatal Cardiovascular and All-Cause Mortality Events. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(4):542–548. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8189 Link

5: Janssen CW, Lowry CA, Mehl MR, et al. Whole-Body Hyperthermia for the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016;73(8):789–795. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.1031 Link

6: Mason AE, Lustig RH, Brown RR, et al. Acute responses to opioidergic blockade as a biomarker of hedonic eating among obese women enrolled in a mindfulness-based weight loss intervention trial. Appetite. 2015;91:311-320. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2015.04.062 Link

7: Patrick R. FoundMyFitness. https://www.foundmyfitness.com/ Link

8: Hannuksela ML, Ellahham S. Benefits and risks of sauna bathing. Am J Med. 2001;110(2):118-126. doi:10.1016/s0002-9343(00)00671-9 Link

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