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The Power of the Sauna

I know that earlier in the year when I preached about the benefits of the cold shower, many people tuned me out completely. I mean, who wants to get up on a cold winter morning like today, turn the dial to the coldest temperature possible, and jump on in? Well this may be an article that’s more up your alley, because we’re going to go in the opposite direction on the thermometer.

Before we go any further into sauna benefits and what happens within your body as you sauna, let me first put out the disclaimer that saunas…are very hot. I know, that’s obvious. But honestly, if this is not a normal heat. We’re talking anywhere from 170 to 220 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have issues with extreme heat, or any preexisting conditions that would lead you to believe that a sauna may be detrimental to your health, please consult a doctor before trying out a sauna.

Alright good, I’ve now absolved myself of all responsibility for your well-being and can continue. It’s always smart when doing research to refer to experts in that field of study. Dr Rhonda Patrick has been a huge proponent of sauna usage, and conducted a study on the benefits that we can achieve. If you haven’t heard of Dr. Patrick, you need to. She is on a few podcasts with Joe Rogan speaking on a variety of health and nutrition related issues, and each episode keeps me completely entranced from start to finish because of her immense knowledge. In fact, I started consistently using the sauna because of her study on the subject.

 

Processes

Alright now let’s jump in. The processes that I want to focus on that occur during sauna usage are heat acclimation and hyperthermic conditioning. When the body is exerting itself during aerobic exercises, body temperature is raised, and the body begins to undergo strain. This obviously decreases performance over time by increasing exhaustion. Saunas help with heat acclimation by essentially training your body to get used to extreme heat and raised body temperature. As you do this, you are able to increase performance in aerobic exercise because your body can stave off exhaustion longer as body temperature rises.

As an athlete this is huge for me. I’m essentially being told that I can run longer and train harder without submitting to exhaustion. We often think about the importance of staving off fatigue when we get into that fourth quarter or final few minutes of a game. If using a sauna consistently can help us approach the end of a game without heavy and tired limbs, why not do it?

Continuing on. Heat acclimation leads to hyperthermic conditioning, which is just a fancy way of saying your body is exposed to hot conditions. However, as mentioned, this conditioning improves athletic performance. But that’s too general for me, so let’s go into some specifics of what types of adaptations your body undergoes that lead to this increase in performance.

  • Lower heart rate and core body temperature: Keeping heart rate and core temperature low helps your body stay at optimal levels longer and avoid exhaustion.
  • Increased blood flow to the heart and muscles: This helps reduce cardiovascular strain and keeps heart rate low.
  • Improves thermoregulatory control: This control activates the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn lowers core body heat, allowing sweating to occur at a lower core temperature and sweat rate to be maintained longer.
  • Increase oxygen transport efficiency: Oxygen delivery to the muscles helps muscle performance.

All of these processes are improved through consistent sauna usage. Shown applicably, Dr. Patrick’s study concluded that running endurance was increased 32%, which is a significant jump, especially when you consider it is an improvement attained without any changes or additions to one’s training.

Muscle Growth

Muscular growth, also called muscular hypertrophy, is induced by both exercise and heat. Using these together, therefore, is obviously an optimal combination. Now, the basics of how to have successful muscular hypertrophy can essentially be summed up in the protein synthesis to degradation ratio, along with the workload (exercise) you are putting in. 

Muscles are constantly undergoing new protein synthesis and existing protein degradation. When you combine these two processes you have a net protein synthesis. In order to achieve muscle growth, you need your net protein synthesis to be positive. Saunas help with that, and they do so through heat shock proteins, increases in human growth hormone (HGH) levels, and improvements in insulin sensitivity.

During your workout, a process called oxidative phosphorylation occurs, which is the fancy, scientific way of saying that cells in the body take in oxygen from the blood to produce energy. A simpler form of this phenomenon is oxidative stress. Oxidative stress can lead to protein degradation, the negative side of our aforementioned protein ratio. Fortunately, the extreme heat found in a sauna session triggers heat shock proteins which, in turn, prevent oxidative stress in the body and fight protein degradation.

So if you’re keeping track of the protein equation, net protein synthesis rises due to a decrease in protein degradation.

Sauna usage also leads to a significant release of HGH. There is some science jargon here (IGF-1, mTOR and FOXO pathways) that I’m going to gloss over because you’re not here to read about the scientific processes, you’re here to understand benefits. Essentially, HGH both increases protein synthesis while simultaneously decreasing protein degradation. Pretty amazing, right? And we’re talking huge increases, not just a percentage point or two. Two 15 minute sauna sessions at 100 degrees Celsius (200 Fahrenheit) separated by a 30 min cooling session increased HGH 5x in Dr. Patrick’s study.

Insulin is responsible for the regulation of protein metabolism within the skeletal muscles. Simply put, insulin increases protein synthesis through increasing availability of amino acids, while decreasing the degradation of proteins within the cells. Like HGH, it hits both sides of the protein equation.

So what does this mean? Plain and simple? Increased athletic and physical performance. Faster muscle recovery. Increased rate of muscle growth. If you’re an athlete, bodybuilder, or even just a consistent exerciser, those three things probably mean a great deal to you. Even if you’re more casual in your training, those benefits are going to be worth a 15 minute sauna session whenever you make it to your gym.

Now that we’ve looked at athletic and physical performance. Let’s talk about non-physical benefits.

Brain function and mental health

That’s right, saunas are good for the mind. During a sauna session there is an increase in norepinephrine and prolactin. Again that’s just scientific nonsense. You want to know how it helps. Well, The former aids in focus and attentiveness while the latter promotes faster brain function. I can’t imagine how that would help you in your day to day lives, unless of course you are a student, or in the work force, or have any daily activity that would benefit from increased brain activity. But that only encompasses maybe 99.9% of the population.

Additionally, saunas can increase expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDiNF). BDNF is responsible for growth of new brain cells which can enhance learning, help long term memory, and reduce anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression are huge in today’s society. Almost everyone is affected in some way but daily anxiety. If you can help alleviate these stresses with a simple and time-efficient activity, why wouldn’t you? Saunas also release endorphins. Just like that “runner’s high” that you feel after a solid cardio or training session, extreme heat produces endorphins that function as natural pain killers. There is discomfort in the extreme heat, just as there is discomfort in that 4 mile run you may take (not me, ever). But, if you’re willing to suck it up and tough it out, that post sauna feeling will be worth it.

Another simple step

I constantly preach the idea of easy life adjustments that have a major impact on one’s well-being. I used the phrase earlier when talking about morning routines that there are many things we can do that are simple enough to complete consistently, and effective enough to feel a sense of accomplishment. For this, you can change the second part of the phrase to say effective enough to have a significant positive influence on your life. As far as anecdotal evidence, I’ve been using the sauna at least 5x per week now for 2 months. My skin is clear, I’m less stressed, and I’ve seen some solid strength and muscle gains in the gym. I didn’t just become superman overnight, but I am without a doubt noticing positive changes. I have no plans of stopping anytime soon.

Also, if you haven’t heard of Dr. Rhonda Patrick I encourage you to check out her website and learn more about different health-related issues. Otherwise, if you can, I also encourage you to hit the sauna and see these benefits for yourself.

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