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What are the health benefits of a sauna?
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In the battle between time and your body, it turns out that regular saunas could be one of your greatest allies.
In his National Geographic series Limitless, Chris Hemsworth goes from plunging into icy arctic waters to the blistering heat of a 195°F sauna – subjecting his body to extreme temperatures as part of his mission to live longer and healthier.
His strategy is backed by growing research. While the people of Finland have been sweating it out in wood-lined boxes for thousands of years, only recently has science begun to pinpoint the benefits of the sauna for your long-term physical and mental health.
Grab your towel and let’s turn up the heat.
Chris caught in the middle of a passionate argument in favor of saunas.
Are all saunas the same?
If you ever find yourself in the middle of rural Finland, your sauna will probably be powered by burning wood. But if you’re heading to your local gym, day spa or having one installed in your luxury pad (lucky you!), these saunas will most likely use electric or infrared heating.
While electric heaters will warm the air to between 158-212°F (70-100°C), thermal radiation from infrared heaters directly warms the body, meaning the temperature only has to go as high as 113-140°F (45-60°C).
You can also opt for a dry or wet sauna. The wet (or steam) variety is probably what leaps to mind first when you think of saunas. With humidity exceeding 50 percent, sweat cannot evaporate, which means your heart needs to work harder to regulate your body temperature. (See more about the thermoregulatory response below.)
How long should you stay in a sauna?
The sweet spot for sauna benefits appears to be a minimum of 20 minutes. One study found that men who used a sauna at 174°F (79°C) for 20 mins or longer had a lower risk of death and Alzheimers.
Funnily enough, this is exactly how the Finns have been doing it for years: breaking up two or three 20-minute sessions in the sauna with rapid cooling periods, which may involve rolling around in the snow or jumping under a cold shower.
The aim of this hot-cold cycle is to trigger the thermoregulatory response, which forces your heart to work harder and more efficiently.
Important: If you do not have any underlying health issues, it is generally considered safe to use a sauna every day. However, people with low blood pressure should consult a doctor prior to using a sauna. Pregnant women should avoid extreme heat where possible, as your temperature regulation system is less effective during pregnancy.
Chris follows up his sauna session with an ice-cold dip for the ultimate heat-cold shock combo.
Why is heat shock good for you?
Using a sauna regularly helps your body optimize the thermoregulatory response and become better prepared for handling any future heat stress.
This process, where your body builds up a resistance to something that would be harmful in large amounts by being exposed to a little bit of it at a time, is called hormesis. Extreme heat isn’t the only way to shock your body with a positive outcome – exercise, dietary modifications and extreme cold, such as ice baths, can also trigger hormesis.
When your body pulls the hormesis trigger, your cells go into defensive mode. Cell repair is boosted, building up your resilience for any future stress from the same source.
Scientists are still exploring the impact this hormetic stress response has on aging and longevity.
These tiny heroes get to work giving my cells the ultimate spring cleaning
How heat shock proteins fight aging
When your cells jump into action to protect you, their first line of defense is to produce heat shock proteins.
Think of these proteins as a kind of clean-up crew. As Chris put it in Limitless: “These tiny heroes get to work giving my cells the ultimate spring cleaning.”
What they’re cleaning up is the harmful waste that all cells produce. These waste byproducts can bounce around cells, damaging proteins as well as mitochondrial DNA. This DNA damage is believed to be one of the nine reasons we age.
As well as helping to clean up our cells, animal studies suggest that increased levels of heat shock proteins may protect us from neurodegenerative diseases by repairing damaged proteins.
Studies have shown that:
- People who stayed in a sauna at 163°F (73°C) for 30 minutes saw a 49 percent increase in heat shock protein levels.
- Using deep tissue heat therapy over a period of six days appeared to increase the levels of heat shock proteins and improved mitochondrial function.
The takeaway here is that a regular sauna will activate the heat shock proteins more often, making your cells more robust and resistant to damage and stress.
Does the sauna help with inflammation?
Evidence suggests that while sauna use triggers the release of both pro and anti-inflammatory factors, overall it is generally associated with lower inflammation.
Sauna use triggers the release of proteins called interleukins to fight inflammation and resist heat stress, making you more resilient and potentially increasing longevity.
What are the health benefits of using a sauna?
In your day-to-day life, research suggests it can help to ease symptoms of flu, arthritis and headaches. Some of the big benefits include:
- Heart health: Some of the protective responses triggered by heat may protect the heart. In fact, sauna use and exercise produce many of the same positive physiological responses. Like exercise, sauna use can increase heart rate to around 100 beats per minute in moderate heat, or 180 bpm at higher temperatures, which is similar to what you would experience during moderate to vigorous exercise.
- Cardiovascular disease: Along with general heart health, studies have found a particular dip in cardiovascular disease among sauna users. A Finnish study found that people who used a sauna 2-3 times per week were 22 percent less likely to have a heart attack, while those who used it 4-7 times a week had a 63 percent lower risk.
- Cognitive decline: That same Finnish study showed that men who used a sauna 4-7 times a week saw a 65 percent reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to those who used a sauna only once a week. This is most likely due to the heat’s positive impact on blood circulation and blood pressure.
With the benefits for your heart and brain, as well as the potential to condition your cells to be more robust in the face of the stressors that drive aging, the sauna may be a useful lifestyle tool for promoting longevity.
Disclaimer: This Centr content is adapted with permission from an article written by Lifespan.io. The content herein represents Centr’s interpretation of the original source material.
Centr x Lifespan.io
Centr has partnered with Lifespan.io to bring you the latest in longevity research. Lifespan.io is the leading source of industry news and a nonprofit advocacy foundation whose mission is to accelerate progress toward overcoming age-related diseases. Since 2014, the organization has focused on responsible journalism, high-impact advocacy, and media initiatives that make longevity research and education more accessible to all.
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