Saunas, Longevity and Health: An Introduction
I’ll admit to scepticism before researching the longevity benefits of sauna use.
After thinking it through, I’d incorrectly dismissed ‘benefits’ based on my predefined stereotype of the type of person that takes saunas. Thinking of a lean, fit, healthy Scandinavian type here. My assumption was that since overweight smokers with a penchant for big macs did not take saunas, the benefits would be skewed, right?
Science wins, my biases lose (once again).
Scientific Study of Sweating
Not only are the benefits of sauna bathing wide ranging, but they improve the more times per week you take a sauna.
The work of Dr Rhonda Patrick is the gold standard in this area. She shows longevity benefits of saunas ranging from cardio health to lower cognitive decline and even reduced age related muscle loss.
This page is a summary / fast-introduction to the topic, with an eye on whether regular saunas should be part of your roster of longevity habits.
For the science, gene pathways including FOXO3 and NRf2 and more, do check out this page at www.foundmyfitness.com.
Sauna Longevity Benefits: A Summary List
Each benefit is covered below. This list is a one-liner on each:
- Dementia / Alzheimer’s: Regular sauna users have a 65% lower chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease, with BDNF production boosted.
- Cardiovascular Health: Sauna frequency is positively linked to between 22% or 63% lower rates of sudden cardiac death and other cardio health benefits.
- Age Related Muscle Loss: Human growth hormone (HGH) is boosted by sauna sessions, alleviating muscle loss in combination with exercise.
- Cellular Oxidation Benefits: Sweating flushes toxins from the body including metals and plastics.
Extra benefits include sleep improvements, reduced inflammation markers and reduced blood glucose levels and increased athletic endurance.
Some Key Terms and Different Types of Sauna
A traditional sauna uses hot coals and water to generate heat and steam. Coals are not needed, though still popular. In addition to traditional saunas, you get infrared versions. This type simply emits light – which heats your skin. Sessions will be longer than for traditional saunas, though the effects over time are the same.
How hot and how long?
Youtuber Mike Mutzel at High Intensity Health summed this up brilliantly. He likened it to the question ‘how long should I exercise for?.’ Of course, it depends on you. If you are fit, you’d work out longer and with more intensity than someone getting started.
Staying in a sauna too long is dangerous. You should work at it, staying a minute or so after discomfort starts. Sessions are typically grouped. 5 minutes is plenty for novices, going up to 15 minutes. Factor in the temperature, dry or wet saunas and your biological age, fitness level and health status – and you will see how measuring this piece of string gets tricky.
If you are taking any medicines, or have any health issues, then speak with your doctor before getting in a sauna. Never do this drunk, dehydrated or if you are feeling unwell.
Plunge pool or cold showers after a sauna makes for a double-sided hormetic shock.
Sauna Benefits: The Science
It is impossible to do anything placebo controlled with sauna studies.
It would be crazy to have control groups sit in a wooden cabin without boosting the temperature. Because of this, long-term comparisons of are the gold standard.
The associated biological mechanisms can also be studied using animal models. These models are ideal for measuring factors such as HSP and BDFN.
Below you will see a summary of the science for the major sauna benefits.
Longevity benefits at the cellular level come via the Heat Shock Proteins (HSP). They trigger autophagy and promote cell health via a ‘bounce back’ mechanism – just like happens with exercise.
Cardiovascular Health and Sauna
This sauna benefit has the most mechanisms to cover. Everything from Ischemic heart disease to cardiovascular disease resulting in heart failure benefit from saunas. As the biggest killer worldwide, any benefits are important.
Big Finnish studies found that the benefits here increase with the number of sauna sessions per week:
- 2 to 3 Sessions (moderate use) = 22% lower sudden cardiac death
- 4 to 7 Sessions (frequent use) = 63% lower sudden cardiac death rates
This is no small study. 2,300 middle aged men is a large sample. Add 37% lower all-cause mortality for the frequent use groups – and you might be itching to jump in a sauna right now (I know I am!).
Frequent sauna users had lower hypertension (high blood pressure), improvements on arterial diseases and healthier lining in blood vessels too.
Alzheimer’s and Depression Benefits of Saunas
Brain derived neurotropic factor or BDNF is key to neuronal health and regeneration. Regular sauna sessions (and / or exercise) help with its production. The statistics are clear – frequent sauna users have 65% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Cognitive function relies on blood flow to the brain. Saunas are shown to help with this too.
Depression studies involving saunas are small scale. They have shown promise. Antidepressant effects and improved symptom measurements show that further studies in this area would be welcomed.
Fitness and Muscle Mass
Sauna sessions boost your heart rate significantly – mimicking exercise. Growth Hormone is vital for muscle generation. But it declines significantly with age – a key reason we lose muscle mass.
Muscles also benefit from boosted HSP (heat shock protein) production. The breakdown and repurposing of cellular components is key for all tissues – and maintains healthy muscles. It is not all about longevity – sauna use boosts performance too. For younger readers, there are studies showing frequent saunas boost endurance and athletic performance.
Cellular Oxidation and Reduction in Toxins
Sweating is more efficient than urination at flushing heavy metals, synthetic plastics, and other environmental toxins from our bodies.
You lose around 1lb of sweat every session (depending on heat, humidity, and duration). You also lose salts and other electrolytes. This makes it important to stay hydrated, and especially to avoid alcohol.
Balancing the Benefits: Longevity Risks and Drawbacks of Regular Sauna Use
Spending too long in a sauna is dangerous – even for otherwise healthy individuals.
But the risk becomes significant for anyone with health issues or taking medication. Make sure you take advice from a medical professional if that describes you. Children, elderly (frail) and pregnant women should also avoid saunas. Never consume alcohol before or during a session.
Men that regularly use sauna’s have reduced sperm count compared to controls – directly affecting their fertility.
You will also lose fluid and electrolytes each sauna session. Lack of electrolytes leads to fatigue and painful muscle cramps. Dehydration has its own list of health risks. Replacing fluids and electrolytes is a must for anyone regularly using saunas.
Wrapping Up: Sauna and Longevity are Linked
Sauna is not only beneficial for healthy ageing, the benefits add to those boosts that come from exercise, healthy eating and great sleep.
After spending two days researching the topic, I’m ready to introduce it to my routine.
Compared to other longevity habits, this one will take some planning. I’ll find out where my closest sauna is, and report back after my first few sessions.
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