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The Benefits Of Sauna and the Optimal Sauna Protocol

Saunas have been growing in popularity in recent years, and for good reason. Not only do they have a long history of use for relaxation and stress relief, but research has shown that they also offer numerous health benefits. Saunas have actually been a part of Finnish culture for thousands of years, but they’ve only more recently gained popularity around the world.

Many of the top health experts such as Dr. Peter Attia who specialises in longevity and Dr. Rhonda Patrick, a scientist with a Ph.D. in biomedical science and a focus on ageing, nutrition, and metabolism are huge proponents of sauna use and have discussed its benefits extensively in their work. Let’s dig in.

The Benefits of Sauna

One of the most well-known benefits of saunas is that they help to reduce stress – sitting in a sauna can help to relax the muscles and reduce tension, which can help to lower cortisol levels and reduce feelings of anxiety. But the benefits of regular sauna are much more far-reaching, and studies have shown it has numerous benefits for both mind and body.

Increased heat shock proteins

Sauna use can stimulate the production of heat shock proteins (HSPs), a group of proteins that are produced in the body in response to positive stress, including exposure to high temperatures. The production of HSPs is a protective response that helps cells to cope with stress and prevent damage.

Improved cardiovascular health

Sauna use can improve cardiovascular health by increasing blood flow, reducing blood pressure, and improving endothelial function (the ability of blood vessels to dilate and constrict).One large study of over 1,600 middle-aged men in Finland found that those who used the sauna four to seven times per week had a 50% lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared to those who used the sauna only once per week.

Enhanced exercise performance

Sauna use has been shown to improve endurance and muscle strength as well as reduce fatigue, which may be related to the increase in HSPs and improved cardiovascular function.. One study of male distance runners found that two weeks of sauna use after each training session led to a significant increase in the time to exhaustion during a subsequent running test, while another study of male weightlifters found that sauna use after exercise increased muscle mass and decreased muscle damage.

Reduced pain and inflammation

Sauna use has been shown to reduce inflammation in the body, which is associated with a range of chronic health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. A study of patients with chronic tension-type headaches found that sauna use reduced the frequency and intensity of headaches. Another study of patients with fibromyalgia found that sauna use reduced pain and fatigue.

Improved skin health

Research suggests that sauna use may promote skin health by increasing blood flow to the skin and promoting the release of toxins. One study of patients with atopic dermatitis found that sauna use led to significant improvements in skin hydration and reduced symptoms of itching and dryness.

 

The Optimal Sauna Protocol

Dr. Rhonda Patrick suggests using the sauna 3-4 times a week, as studies have shown that sauna use at that frequency reduced all-cause mortality by 40% compared to sauna use once a week. She recommends 20-30 minute intervals at 175 (79°C) at the very least if using a traditional sauna (longer for infrared saunas) and alternating between hot and cold temperatures once or twice in a session.

Meanwhile, Dr. Peter Attia recommends using the sauna 4-7 times per week (he mostly uses the sauna in the evenings as a way to wind down and improve his sleep). He suggests a duration of 20-30 minutes at a temperature of 175-185°F (79-85°C) and a cold shower after the sauna to help with muscle recovery and decrease inflammation.

While it certainly would be ideal if we could get a sauna session in multiple times a week, most of us are doing well to just get one session in each week – and that’s absolutely fine. The best sauna protocol for you is one that fits your individual needs and preferences – your health, tolerance for heat (and cold), schedule and other life commitments.

With that said, here are some general guidelines you can follow to create an effective and safe sauna protocol:

  1. Start with 1 session a week, building up the frequency as it suits you and your schedule.
  2. Aim to be in the sauna for at least 20 minutes at a time.
  3. If you’re new to it, start at a lower temperature (60-65°C) for a few weeks. The tolerance for heat in a sauna is very much a mental game, so we recommend getting comfortable staying in the sauna for 20 minutes straight at a lower temperature, rather than cranking it up and having to leave halfway.
  4. Gradually increase the temperature to 70-80°C as you become more comfortable with the heat over time.
  5. If you have access to a shower next to your sauna, try going straight into a cold shower for 1 minute after your 20-minute sauna session. You can then go back into the sauna for another 20 minutes, and repeat. If you have an ice bath available, even better!

Always remember to listen to your body, stay hydrated (drink more than you think you need!) and consult your practitioner on whether sauna use is suitable for you if you have any pre-existing medical conditions.

 

References

Laukkanen T, Kunutsor S, Kauhanen J, et al. Sauna bathing is inversely associated with dementia and Alzheimer's disease in middle-aged Finnish men. Age Ageing. 2017;46(2):245-249.

Laukkanen JA, Laukkanen T. Sauna bathing and risk of cardiovascular disease: a prospective cohort study. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2018;71(21):2480-2481.

Kukkonen-Harjula K, Oja P, Laustiola K, et al. Haemodynamic and hormonal responses to heat exposure in a Finnish sauna bath. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1991;63(3-4):243-246.

Scoon GS, Hopkins WG, Mayhew S, et al. Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners. J Sci Med Sport. 2007;10(4):259-262.

Leppäluoto J, Huttunen P, Hirvonen J, et al. Endocrine effects of repeated sauna bathing. Acta Physiol Scand. 1986;128(3):467-470.

Masuda A, Nakazato K, Kihara T, et al. The effects of repeated thermal therapy for patients with chronic pain. Psychother Psychosom. 2005;74(5):288-294.

Sutinen P, Kainulainen H, Häkkinen K, et al. Acute hormonal and neuromuscular responses and recovery to forced vs. voluntary exercise in human athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2004;18(2):272-279.

Laasonen EM, Kääriäinen M. Sauna bathing and skin. Acta Derm Venereol. 1988;68(2):141-143.

Bogdanovica I, Henning A, Zirbs A, et al. Sweat gland function after whole-body hyperthermia in atopic dermatitis. Arch Dermatol Res. 2007;299(10):537-542.

Vuori I. Sauna bathing and cardiovascular health. Ann Clin Res. 1988;20(4):287-290.

Biro S, Masuda A, Kihara T, et al. Clinical implications of thermal therapy in lifestyle-related diseases. Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2003;228(10):1245-1249.

Kukkonen-Harjula K, Oja P, Vuori I, et al. Effects of sauna bathing on fitness training and body composition in male athletes. J Sci Med Sport. 1994;13(2):178-183.

Hannuksela ML, Ellahham S. Benefits and risks of sauna bathing. Am J Med. 2001;110(2):118-126.

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