Saunas have long been used in society as a form of stress relief and full-body healing. The earliest Saunas date back over 2,000 years to Scandinavian countries, where they were invented and popularized. When Finnish migrants settled in Delaware in 1638, they brought Sauna culture with them, and they have been apart of our culture ever since. Nowadays, you can find a sauna at most local gyms, YMCAs, and spas, or you can even get one for your own home.
Regular sauna use has been long believed to have major health benefits. Now, studies are emerging to support these claims. Heat stress from regular sauna use has been shown too: improve endurance in athletes, prevent muscle atrophy, improve insulin sensitivity, increase neurogenesis, and improve longevity (1). Over the course of this same study, which looked at regular sauna use over the course of 20 years, the results showed that using a sauna 2-3x a week led to a 27% decrease in fatal cardiovascular incidents. Further, the study found that men who used the sauna 4-7x a week had an almost 50% lower risk for fata cardiovascular incidents. Both groups were compared to a group that only used the sauna once per week. Secondly, the study also found that, when compared to a group who only used the sauna 1x a week, the group who used the sauna 2-3x a week saw a 24% reduction in all cause mortality, and the group who used the sauna 4-7x a week saw a 40% reduction in all cause mortality!
In the interest of simplicity, I will keep the discussion of what mechanisms cause these benefits focused on one biological component: heat shock proteins. HSPs are proteins that are stimulated after bouts of heat exposure. HSPs are critical in preventing protein degradation (2,3), which, in layman’s terms, means protein’s falling apart.
The more proteins that break down in the body, the more free radicals that begin to circulate. Free radicals can lead to inflammatory responses in the body, and inflammation is the root cause of most issues that humans suffer from. HSPs help mitigate these proteins from breaking down, leading to a reduction in inflammation (2,3).
So, with all of this great information at hand, how should you begin to incorporate sauna use into your routine? After consulting with your doctor, we suggest starting slowly, and experimenting to find the frequency, temperature and duration that work for you. Some sauna use is better than no sauna use, so don’t overdo it at first. We also recommend finding ways to make sauna use enjoyable. Listen to music, meditate, or stretch to pass the time. Sauna benefits occur passively, so make the most of your time by relaxing, and let the power of heat work its magic.
Laukkanen T, Khan H, Zaccardi F, Laukkanen JA. Association Between Sauna Bathing and Fatal Cardiovascular and All-Cause Mortality Events. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(4):542–548. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8187
2. Selsby, J. T. et al. Intermittent hyperthermia enhances skeletal muscle regrowth and attenuates oxidative damage following reloading. J Appl Physiol (1985) 102, 1702-1707, doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00722.2006 (2007).
3. Naito, H. et al. Heat stress attenuates skeletal muscle atrophy in hindlimb-unweighted rats. J Appl Physiol 88, 359-363 (2000)