Saunas have been around for a long time and used properly can provide very real health benefits. Like exercise heat is a stressor and has a strong effect on many body systems. The key to obtaining the benefits is to understand that properly applied stress stimulates a positive adaptive response to the stressor. Often referred to as “hyperthermic conditioning” applying heat through saunas on a regular basis causes adaptations that make it easier for your body to function when your body temperature is elevated.
The adaptations include increased plasma volume and blood flow to your heart and muscles (which helps increase athletic endurance) along with increased muscle mass due to greater levels of heat-shock proteins and growth hormone.
For example, in a recent study, participants who did a 30 minute sauna sessions two times a week for three weeks increased their ability to exercise prior to exhaustion by 30 percent!
Other proven physiological adaptations include:
Lower heart rate
Lower core temperature during workouts
Increased red blood cell count
Increased oxygen transport to muscles
Sauna’s Effects on Growth Hormone Release
Growth hormone has many beneficial effects including deceased body fat, increased lean mass, improved energy levels, improved skin texture, thickness and elasticity and better overall quality of life.
Growth hormone levels decline quickly after age 30 is in part what drives the aging process so maintaining growth hormone levels is very important during aging. Growth hormone is available through injection, but it is very expensive and has the potential to cause harm long-term. More importantly there are natural ways to boost the body’s secretion of growth hormone including the use of Saunas! In fact, studies have shown that sauna use can increase growth hormone up to 16 times base levels.
Other ways to naturally boost growth hormone include the proper use of high intensity exercise (HIIT) and intermittent fasting (these should NOT be done all at the same time!). Saunas and HIIT also increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is quite literally like miracle grow for the brain!
BDNF’s activity in your muscles and brain is likely a major way that workouts have such beneficial impacts on the brain. Saunas also increase other beneficial brain chemicals including norepinephrine, prolactin and endorphins.
Saunas and Heat Shock Proteins
Not surprisingly sauna use boosts heat shock proteins (HSPs). HSPs help counteract harmful stimulus including but not limited to heat. HSPs help prevent and repair damaged proteins. One of the ways that HSPs prevent damage is by directly eliminating free radicals and boosting the bodies primary anti-oxidant glutathione.
Through these mechanisms HSPs increase muscle growth independent of growth hormone effects by reducing muscle breakdown. HSPs persist for up to 48 hours after a sauna.
Saunas and Insulin Sensitivity
Saunas have also been proven to increase insulin sensitivity which is critical for metabolic health, along with prevention and improvement of adult onset diabetes.
Saunas and Detoxification
Saunas like exercise increase sweating and dramatically increase metabolic rate. Sweating helps clean pores, expels toxins and kills viruses and bacteria that cannot survive in temperatures above 98.6 degrees F.
There have been studies showing the value of sweating to increase the excretion of toxic heavy metals.
Saunas and Pain Reduction
Saunas have shown tremendous benefit for those suffering from Fibromyalgia and Lyme Disease by reducing pain and discomfort. Similar benefits have been shown with arthritis.
Different Types of Saunas
There are several types of saunas including those with wet and dry heat. A wet sauna heats the air with water and heat and produces steam. Dry saunas do not increase humidity. Both heat your body by increasing the air temperature and heating your body from the outside.
Another distinct type of sauna is an infrared sauna which works by projecting infrared rays into your body and heating it from the inside out.
You get hotter, faster and deeper in your tissue than with a traditional dry sauna, but the room does not get as hot.
Which one you choose depend on how you can tolerate heat and if you prefer the lower temperature of an infrared sauna.
There is more and more science supporting the benefits of infrared saunas.
Safe Sauna Use
It is critical to drink plenty of water before, during and after sauna use and excessive use can cause heat stroke. Do NOT drink alcohol or use any sauna when drinking alcohol.
Sauna use is contraindicated for any pregnant female and for both sexes if trying to induce pregnancy. Increased temperature can severely damage a developing fetus and decreases sperm count and motility.
Keep in mind that saunas are supposed to relax you NOT be a teeth-gritting experience! Start with short exposures and gradually build time. If you start to feel dizzy at all – time to get out!