When done safely and correctly deliberate heat exposure can provide the human body numerous benefits. However, similar to deliberate cold exposure, and or any other “out of the ordinary” stimuli, there are safety considerations. As a precaution, check with your primary care provider prior to adding a novel stimulus to your regimen. In general, pregnant women, and children under the age of 16 should not use the sauna. Secondly, one should begin slowly, by using cooler temperatures that don’t significantly increase heart rate. Hyperthermia and dehydration are always possible, so proceed with caution. Another point to consider is if you are a man and are trying to conceive children, please know that repeated deliberate heat exposure can reduce sperm count. The counts rebound after cessation of sauna/hot bath use, but that can take 45-60 days.
What are the Benefits of Deliberate Heat Exposure?
Research has shown that regular use of a sauna (deliberate heat exposure) can improve cardiovascular health. Laukkanen et al. found that through regular use of sauna, participants reduced their risk of cardiovascular events/stroke that led to death. This paper found that increasing the frequency and length of sauna sessions subsequently decreased the long-term risk of cardiovascular disease. Further, the use of sauna has been studied by other clinical groups and positively correlated with a reduction in “all‑cause mortality”—a catchall term referring to death from any cause.
Heat will trigger some of the same mechanisms in the brain and body as if you were physically engaged in cardiovascular exercise. While in the sauna, heart rate, and blood flow increase, and blood vessels will vasodilate as your body works to cool down in order to regulate body temperature.
Improved Stress Response & Overall Health
Studies have found that the regular use of sauna can decrease cortisol levels; enhance the activation of DNA repair/longevity pathways; and increase the activation of unique heat-dependent molecular mechanisms, termed Heat Shock Proteins, which help monitor and possibly repair protein structure within our cells. The integrity of protein structures is vital to our health and wellbeing.
Decreased Risk of Dementia
Studies have also shown that frequent sauna use may reduce the risk of dementia in men and women. Of the different features of sauna bathing habits considered, the frequency of sauna bathing was the most important predictor of dementia. During the first 20 years of follow-up, the dementia risk of those reporting 9–12 sauna baths per month (i.e., approximately three per week) was less than half of the risk of those who had sauna baths only 0–4 times per month. The reduction in the dementia risk was attenuated during the follow-up, but the decrease of the risk was still evident after nearly 40 years. Accordingly, a sauna bathing frequency of three times per week may be associated with a reduced risk of dementia.
How long should you sauna?
Below you will find two protocols that you can attempt to utilize. Again, please consult with your primary care physician prior to beginning deliberate heat exposure.
Protocol #1—Sauna for Cardiovascular Health
In order to use sauna to benefit cardiovascular health, try the following protocol. Heat the sauna to a temperature in the range of 80-100 ℃; 176-212 ℉. NOTE: Your personal heat tolerance should determine the actual temperature. Try to stay in the sauna anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes per session and repeat the use of the sauna from 2 to 3x per week, or as often as 7x per week. More often does appear to be better with respect to cardiovascular health.
Protocol #2—Sauna for General Health
In order to gain the benefits of deliberate heat exposure for general health, including improved mood, stress management, and the enhancement of the body’s hormetic (mild stress) response pathways, use sauna for a total of 1 hour per week, but not all at once. Rather, split that into 2 to 3 sessions. (The sauna temperature should be between 80-100 ℃; 176-212 ℉).
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