Unlocking the Benefits of Sauna Therapy: Fact vs. Fiction
Does Heat Therapy Really Help?
Saunas have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. The idea is incredibly simple: sit in the heat for a short period of time and sweat it out.
This seems too good to be true. Let’s separate fact from fiction.
Sauna and steam rooms have been in every fancy gym and fitness center for decades. But they gained increased popularity over the last few years, in part due to an interview with Joe Rogan and Rhonda Patrick. She spent a few hours going over the benefits of sauna use and the relevant studies to an audience of millions.
The popularity of sauna use spiked, and so did the mythology.
Heat therapy (sauna and steam room) is wonderful therapy. But it is not a panacea. It won’t bring you back from your deathbed and make you feel 18 again.
A sauna is simply a room designed to make you sweat. Heat can be created in a number of ways such as electric, propane, geothermal, infrared, and so on. The walls and benches are typically made of wood so that you don’t burn yourself and reduce some of the moisture.
You simply sit in the sauna for a short period of time and enjoy the benefits of heat therapy. Some people practice deep breathing, and some practice meditation, some stretch, some shadow-box, some just talk with their friends. You can make the experience your own.
Most people spend anywhere from 10-30 minutes in the sauna a couple of days per week.
There are many reported benefits of sauna use. Let’s discuss some of them.
Merely sitting in a sauna increases your heart rate. It has been shown to increase the heart rate into what is typically considered zone 1 cardio, similar to a slow walk.
Increasing your heart rate improves perfusion throughout the body. More blood is pumped per minute which allows for improved oxygen transfer to the tissues, and improved transport of metabolites away from the tissues. Improved blood flow to the tissues is rarely a bad thing.
Circulation is improved with sauna use for a few reasons. We already discussed heart rate. The other part is blood pressure. The body likes to maintain a normal temperature at all times. So, when you enter the sauna your body starts to get warm and wants to cool down.
One way it does this is by vasodilating. This means the blood vessels dilate, especially in the periphery. This causes the blood to be closer to the outside environment. The body sweats and the process of evaporation cools the body down. That doesn’t work so well in the sauna, but the body’s reaction is the same regardless.
This process of vasodilation reduces your blood pressure. More pipes are open with the same amount of blood flowing through them which leads to lower blood pressure comparatively.
These benefits, in theory, lead to reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases such as stroke and heart attack. It is my belief that you would need to use the sauna regularly for many years to see these benefits. Using the sauna every week for a year would be a minimal benefit in the long term.
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We have discussed the benefits of heat in the body when it comes to inflammation and healing many times in the past. Take a look at this article if you need a refresher.
Heat is one of the ways the body signals for healing. It attracts all the necessary substrate and cells to the area for the healing process to occur. This is true for both acute and chronic inflammation.
Regular use of the sauna can improve a wide array of diseases associated with chronic inflammation. Arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disease, and many others.
This is one of the biggest benefits of regular sauna use. When you’re sitting in the sauna your stress literally melts away. Something about the heat, the silence, and the process makes it a fantastic anxiolytic.
When you’re in the sauna, noradrenaline (norepinephrine) is released. This neurotransmitter plays a role in countless processes within the body including stress, mood, sleep regulation, and so forth.
This one is pretty easy to understand. The sauna makes you sweat. When you sweat you remove debris from your skin and pores which helps improve the appearance of your skin.
Heat therapy also improves circulation. Improved circulation improves skin health, primarily through increased collagen production.
We touched on this in the inflammation section so we don’t need to get in-depth here. The sauna can promote immune health by improving the production and transport of white blood cells, antibodies, and so on.
However, the sauna can be stressful for the body. If you are sick it may not be a good idea to spend an hour in the sauna. This will force the body to use scarce resources (energy (ATP)) buffering against the heat rather than fighting off the infection.
I saved this one for last because it’s the most difficult to understand. When people say something is a “detox” it can mean literally anything or nothing at all. Toxins are used colloquially to mean basically anything bad for the body at high levels.
You won’t cure a snake or spider bite by sitting in the sauna. But you may help remove some excess heavy metals. Sweating is one of the ways the body removed these types of molecules so the sauna can be beneficial. Unfortunately, the marketing of “detox” makes it hard to separate truth from fantastical claims.