Updated: Oct 19
A neuroscientist explains how the heat of the sauna helps strengthen the heart, improve sleep, and rejuvenate joints and muscles.
The sauna has its origins in Finland and northern countries many centuries ago. (The “sauna” is also called the Turkish hammam, Russian banya, Japanese sento, and generically, the bathhouse or steam room). For generations, people (entire families) visited the steam room for bathing during the frozen winter months. But many people also relied on the sauna year-round to increase immunity and improve their physical health. History records that the ancient Greek physician and philosopher Hippocrates prescribed the sauna for various diseases.
Today, we rely on modern medicine and countless pharmaceuticals to prevent and cure illnesses. The sauna is often regarded mainly as a place to relax and meet friends. However, many sauna users swear by the health benefits of heat therapy (and also alternating heat and cold therapies). But is there scientific evidence to support the anecdotal reports of healing and improvements in metabolism? To answer these questions, we turn to the Huberman Lab health podcast where neuroscientist Andrew Huberman answers this question based on his scientific research.
Andrew Huberman is a neuroscientist and professor at Stanford University. He runs the Huberman Laboratory at the Stanford School of Medicine. He specializes in research on the development and functioning of the brain, neuroplasticity, and the regeneration of neurons damaged by injury or disease.
Does the sauna have documented health benefits? Yes, the high temperatures in the sauna have multiple, powerful effects on the participants.
The cardiovascular system:
Heat causes the blood vessels to dilate. The heart rate increases from 100 to 150 beats per minute and blood flow increases. The heat of the sauna closely mimics the cardiovascular effects of an aerobic workout. Essentially, your cardiovascular system is engaged in a safe and effective cardio workout while you are sitting and sweating in the sauna!
Research scientists conducted a study of 1688 people aged 53 to 74 years over a 15-year period. Among the study participants who took a sauna four to seven times a week, they were found to have a 47% lower risk of vascular disease. There were no other significant differences in the control groups. Exposure to the heat of the sauna was the only contributing factor to the huge improvement in cardiovascular health.
There are three forms of fat in the body. White fat is a store of energy and serves as thermal insulation for internal organs. However, excess white fat is the definition of obesity and can lead to diabetes. Brown fat is responsible for thermoregulation. When a person is cold, the brown fat breaks down to help raise the body temperature. Brown fat is beneficial and helps lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Beige fat is an intermediate form between white and brown.
Unfortunately, an adult typically has little brown fat and too much white fat. But there are ways to increase brown fat proportions. First, physical activity is known to reduce white fat and increase brown fat reserves. Studies have also found that exposure to low and high temperatures stimulates the production of brown fat. In a 2022 study, Chinese researchers found that at a temperature of 41 degrees Celsius (105-degrees Fahrenheit), the amount of beige fat increases and then converts to brown fat. This study does not suggest that the sauna “melts away” the harmful white fat but helps to increase the proportions of beneficial beige and brown fats.
Growth hormone (somatotropin) rejuvenates the body and helps muscles recover faster. Somatotropin is released during deep sleep. As we age, deep sleep duration decreases, as does the amount of human growth hormone in the body. But a sauna can stimulate its production.
In a Finnish study, participants used the sauna for four sessions per day (four sessions of 30 minutes each) for a week. On the first day of the study, growth hormone production had increased by 16 times. By the third day, growth hormone production had lessened to “only” an increase of four times. This study confirmed both that the heat of the sauna directly increased the production of human growth hormone and that the body adapts to the conditions over time. Overuse of the sauna had no negative effects, just a lessening of the benefits.
The heat of the sauna affects many processes in the body. For example, sauna heat stimulates the production of the FOXO3 protein, which is involved in DNA restoration and the cleansing of aging cells in the body. Greater concentrations of FOXO3 have been linked to longevity, including the likelihood of living up to 100 years. Externally, the heat of the sauna and the resulting sweat helps the keratinized particles of the skin to exfoliate, producing smoother skin and increased collagen production.
High temperatures in the sauna introduce beneficial stress to the body. Like a vigorous workout, the sauna stimulates the production of endorphins. These neurotransmitters relieve pain and discomfort. In addition, many athletes have found that the sauna effectively extends their workouts. Entering the sauna directly from exercise that has already raised the core temperature continues the benefits of the workout without additional muscle damage. Likewise, a sauna after a hard day of work produces a sense of lightness and joy.
Our body develops circadian rhythms as a result of our daily routines. As we slow down our activities in the evening, the body temperature decreases. Whenever we are exposed to heat, the body increases blood flow to our skin and decreases blood flow to inner organs as a cooling mechanism. Exposure to the heat of the sauna in the evening causes the brain to initiate these cooling processes and helps the body rest.
Note that redirecting blood flow away from the inner organs reduces digestion, so it is advisable to not eat a hearty meal close to entering the sauna. However, it is important to increase the intake of fluids to offset the loss due to sweating. On average, you should drink about a pint of water for every 10 minutes spent in the sauna. You should not drink alcohol, coffee, or caffeinated tea in the sauna because of the effects they have on the heart, which is already stressed by the heat.
The sauna may have contraindications for some health conditions. Do not steam during pregnancy, breastfeeding, serious heart diseases (ischemic disease, arrhythmia, and tachycardia), tuberculosis, epilepsy, and oncology. The sauna is stressful for the body and should be avoided if you have other health concerns. In general, the sauna is not recommended for small children or women who are pregnant. (This is contrary to the age-old routines of Finnish families who enjoy the sauna together at all stages of life). If you have questions, you should consult with your doctor.
The Great Out There offers DISCOUNTED sauna packages that include your choice of mobile tent with a stove jack, the sauna heat stove, water pail, etc. Options include delivery and set-up, rocks for the sauna stove, fire-proof floor, wood sauna benches, cold plunge tubs, and more.
If you have always wanted to enjoy the MANY benefits of a sauna, NOW is the time to buy TGOT Mobile Sauna Combo Package. Visit the Shop section at GreatOutThere.online or contact us for more options. Let us assemble the sauna tent and accessories that will make the sauna experience accessible and affordable.