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Feelin' Hot, Hot, Hot

Sep 02, 2022

By: Katie Burnham, DPT

Is There a Benefit to Regular Sauna Use?

Our bodies are excretion machines! Yup, they really do a great job at eliminating waste. Urination, defecation, breathing and SWEAT are all examples of the body’s way to eliminate waste. Who doesn’t love a real good sweat session? Something about feeling accomplished perhaps, like whatever you did in order to generate sweat is something to feel good about. Generally we work for it and sweat is the byproduct of heat generated in the body during a workout or physical activity. So what about when you just sit there and sweat? Is that beneficial?

Saunas have been used for over 2,000 years! It all started in Finland in the form of a “bath house”. Hot rocks were used to heat up a room. Things have evolved over the years to wood stove heaters and then electricity. Fast forward to current times and we even have something called infrared. In recent years, infrared saunas have become increasingly popular. Different wavelengths are used to heat the body. You may have heard of near-, mid- and far-infrared. These different wavelengths penetrate the skin at different depths and heat the body from within. Sunlight is an example of far-infrared. Traditional saunas heat the air around the body and subsequently will require higher temperatures and longer time to achieve similar outcomes.

So is there any benefit to using a sauna and is there a difference between the traditional and infrared type? The point of being in either variety of sauna is to induce thermotherapy, or whole body temperature elevation. Either the tradition or infrared will accomplish this. The means by which this is achieved is different and the amount of time and intensity of heat will also be different. But why would we want to get in a box with the purpose of achieving thermotherapy to sweat in the first place? To answer this I went to the journal articles. Research studies and literature reviews have been or course been done on this very topic. Most research has focused on the potential benefits associated with cardiovascular health. Below I break it down into two categories of benefit: Physiological and Psychological.

 

Example of “physiological” impacts from using a sauna:

-Exposure to heat increases cardiac output and reduces peripheral vascular resistance (reduced blood pressure, improved cardiac function)

-Increased nitric oxide metabolites in the blood (regulating vasodilatation, blood flow, mitochondrial respiration and platelet function)

-Positive impact on total and LDL cholesterol

-Increased levels of growth hormone

-Decreased fasting blood glucose levels 

-Improved immunity

-Enhanced excretion of toxins

These are legitimate physiological effects of regular sauna use that can be tested and backed by objective data. They are examples of changed happening to the physical body. What about the impact on the mind?

In terms of psychological benefits:

-There is a release of endorphins and other opioid-like peptides…still a bit physiologic, but has a direct impact on our mood ;)

-Forced mindfulness (you have to go somewhere “within” to get through the self inflicted discomfort of prolonged and elevated exposure to heat).

-Overall sense of stress reduction with potential carryover to improved sleep

 

Regular use of a sauna can contribute to “Sauna Fitness” or “Hormetic Adaptation”. This refers to a general stress-adaptation response. Ever hear us say, “get comfortable with being uncomfortable”? Well, this motto further support sauna fitness. Perhaps there is something to the fact that submitting yourself to greater than average heat over a period of time can improve your tolerance for it. Perhaps, becoming more tolerant of uncomfortable stimuli can carryover to positively impact our tolerance for life B.S. Wether it be sitting in traffic or becoming annoyed by your child asking you the same question repeatedly, I like to think I can handle general life stressors better because regular sauna use has elevated my tolerance to less than desirable situations. Maybe its all in my head and truly the Placebo effect of just thinking I am doing something that could benefit me. Either way, I don’t care! As long as I feel like a more optimal version of myself, I will continue to use my sauna and sweat…a lot.

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