Human beings are innately wired to avoid discomfort. As we continue evolving as a society we are becoming further displaced from our uncomfortable roots. Until recently we continually experienced periods of relatively extreme variations in temperature, food availability, and other environmental factors that made us more robust as human beings. This positive, adaptive response to stress is a process known as hormesis. The principal of hormesis is at the forefront of why we are currently seeing a rise in tools and practices that expose us to these low-level stressors in hopes that we become more resilient as a result. Intermittent fasting becoming extremely popular is an example of individuals tapping into this age-old wisdom and experience that results in net-positive adaptations. Perhaps even more beneficial than not eating for periods of time is subjecting yourself to what is known as hyperthermic conditioning or heat exposure in a sauna. Sauna use has been shown to have profound cardiovascular, body composition, cognitive function, and general longevity effects as well as quite literally countless other uses that are being rigorously studied as we speak. Saunas or other tools for hyperthermic conditioning have been a part of cultures for generations upon generations, and yet it is only recently that science has turned an eye to its potential for improving and extending human life. There are many different kinds of saunas that all provide relatively the same benefits, but we are going to focus on infrared sauna because it is typically easier for most people to use.
Infrared versus traditional sauna
Both the infrared and traditional saunas provide many of the same benefits – what differs is how they are able to provide them. Traditional saunas work by heating up the air in a small room, also heating up anything in it, including you. They operate at a much higher temperature than an infrared sauna, at around 170° f. This may make a traditional sauna more subjectively stressful than it’s infrared counterpart which operates at a much lower temperature of around 110 to 130° f. Infrared saunas are able to operate at a much lower temperature because the way that they heat you.
Infrared saunas utilize light from the infrared portion of the spectrum to penetrate your tissues and literally heat you from the inside out. While this may sound a bit scary, in reality you experience infrared rays every time you’re exposed to the sun – it’s what you sense as heat on a sunny day. Sauna newbies will likely gravitate towards the infrared sauna due to its lower temperature range and its ability to raise your core and tissue temperature much more quickly. Although most of the research for the longevity benefits of sauna use are done utilizing a traditional sauna, you can expect many of the same benefits from the much more tolerable infrared sauna.
Benefits of infrared (IR) sauna use
Attempting to create a definitive list of the benefits of consistent IR sauna use is a task akin to Sisyphus rolling his stone up the hill. Researchers seem to be illuminating just how effective saunas are at making us more resilient as human beings on a daily basis. Not just in laboratories but also large-scale, longitudinal studies of actual people over the span of decades. One such study conducted by the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, found that using a sauna four times a week was associated with a 50% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, 47% reduced risk of developing high blood pressure, 67% lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s, all of which are major killers in Western society. But how does voluntarily subjecting yourself to an uncomfortable amount of heat provide all of these improvements in cardiovascular health, cognitive function, and general longevity? Well, most of it comes down to sauna use being a stressor, just like exercise.
What happens when you’re in a sauna?
You may not know it but when you’re in a sauna, there’s a lot going on inside of you at the cellular, tissue, system, and organismal level. This means that regular sauna use has the ability to alter your physiology in a way that can have a ripple effect throughout your entire body. For instance, when you are exposed to extreme temperatures like in a sauna, your cardiac output increases 60-70% due to an increased heart rate. Your stroke volume (the amount of blood your heart pumps with each contraction) remains the same however. This effect provides you with a stimulus similar to traditional cardiovascular exercise without the need for you to actually exert energy. This is why sauna use is considered an exercise mimetic or an alternative to traditional exercise. The effects of sauna use go much further than just increasing cardiovascular function – there is an interesting group of molecules known as heat shock proteins that are activated robustly by sauna use.
Guarding against Muscle Atrophy
Heat shock proteins or HSPs, are one of the more recent celebrities in the field of health and longevity. Essentially what these HSPs do is repair damaged proteins within our cells and ensure that they are functioning optimally. They also help to preserve muscle mass (muscle tissue is really just a bunch of proteins) while in a detrained or catabolic state. Consistent sauna use has been studied and proven effective at protecting against muscle atrophy during states of deconditioning or when an individual is unable to train. Benefits of sauna use go even deeper than just the physiological, and have been shown to have a profound effect on psychological well-being.
Anxiety, Depression, and Addiction
We’re all familiar with the presence of compounds called endorphins within the body – generally associated with feelings of euphoria or a blunted pain response. What many people have not heard of is it’s somewhat evil twin, dynorphin. Dynorphin is generally responsible for dysphoria, quite the opposite of euphoria. Dysphoria can be described as the sense of unease or comfort that you experience when in a sauna. This release of dynorphin triggers a response in the brain that produces more of the receptors that the feel-good endorphin will bind to. Not only does it produce more receptors for endorphins, but it makes the ones that it already has more receptive to this euphoria-inducing molecule. What this means for you is that sauna use may help anxiety, depression, addiction, and other cognitive issues by increasing your ability to feel the effects of endorphins. Essentially, because when you are in a sauna you feel bad, your body becomes more adept at feeling good.
Other Benefits of Infrared Sauna
As we mentioned before, creating an exhaustive list the benefits of sauna use is well beyond the scope of this article. But, if the effects we have already mentioned are not enough to convince you, consider the fact that sauna use has been consistently shown to decrease blood pressure and arterial compliance (how well your blood vessels respond to changes in blood pressure), and increase expression of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Jumping in the sauna regularly has also been shown to decrease inflammation, increase insulin sensitivity, lower blood fasting glucose, increase exercise endurance, facilitate the excretion of toxins and heavy metals, and generally decrease depressive symptoms.
What kind of sauna is best?
Many of the benefits of sauna can be gained by both traditional and infrared saunas. What it comes down to is primarily personal preference. Infrared saunas will be much more tolerable for the inexperienced, however most of the longevity research has been completed in traditional saunas. Infrared saunas are also reported to potentially be better at excreting toxins, and are often times lower in harmful EMF (electromagnetic fields) than most traditional saunas. Because you have the option to choose which is best for you, there really is no reason to not start jumping into our kennewick infrared sauna 3 to 4 times a week for 20 minutes. Starting a practice of regular sauna use will begin providing you benefits today, and the results will build upon each other for years to come.