Saunas have been used in many different cultures for years as a way to cleanse the body, relax the mind and purge the body of sickness. In the country of Finland a sauna is referred to as your “First Doctor” meaning that before you seek help for being sick you would just hop in a sauna and see if it does the trick. Although this is difficult to quantify in research there are several other benefits the sauna has on the human body which have been proven in scientific studies. Sauna use has been shown to increase endurance capacity, increase muscle protein synthesis, and also increase brain function. Over the course of this blog we will look into the mechanisms behind how all of these factors are improved with sauna use. Lets get at it!
Sauna use increases our bodies capacity for endurance work. Another Great way to increase endurance is with HIIT . The first mechanism behind how this works is by increasing thermoregulatory control and our sweat response. When you are in a sauna your body must actively push blood to the extremities and vasodilate. This is what allows our sweat response to kick in, and once we begin to sweat we are able to lose heat energy through the process of evaporative heat loss. This translates to an increase in endurance performance because our bodies are better able to keep our core temperature low and dissipate heat in an efficient manner. The second mechanism that allows sauna use to increase endurance performance is through an increase in blood flow to the working muscles. Blood is what carries free fatty acids, glucose and oxygen to the working muscles. All three of these things are vital for maintaining performance. Sauna use has been shown to help your body preserve local glycogen stores due to this increase in blood flow to the muscles. Preserving muscle glycogen is essential for not hitting a wall, aka not having your performance rapidly decrease. Saunas have also been shown to increase blood flow to the heart which ultimately decreases the strain on your cardiovascular system. To recap; saunas improve endurance by:
- Improving thermoregulatory control and allowing your body to dissipate heat more efficiently when working out.
- Helping your body increase blood flow to working muscles so that when you engage in endurance events or training, your muscles can spare muscle glycogen.
- Increasing blood flow to the heart which in turn decreases the strain on your heart at any given workload.
Saunas have been shown to help increase muscular hypertrophy by the inner workings of two main mechanisms. The first mechanism by which sauna use has been shown to increase muscular hypertrophy is by increasing the levels of growth hormone and IGF-1(insulin like growth factor 1). Several research studies have shown that if you take a 20 minute sauna at 80 degrees celsius following working out you will trigger a much larger hormetic effect within your body; this hormetic effect includes an increase in the levels of growth hormone secreted by your body and IGF-1 which both play a major role in increasing muscle size. Saunas have also been shown to increase protein synthesis. When we workout we create a lot of ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species) also known as oxidative damage; this is why working out is actually stressful to our bodies and recovery is so important! Funny enough, saunas actually help with recovery and ensure we prevent the breakdown of proteins as much as possible. Saunas have been shown to induce the production of something known as heat shock proteins. Heat shock proteins are able to repair damaged proteins and decrease the breakdown of proteins by neutralizing free radicals also known as ROS. Aside from neutralizing free radicals, saunas also stimulate the production of our bodies naturally produced antioxidant glutathione. Glutathione binds ROS and neutralizes them, this is vital to the health and function of our cells, and lucky for us all we have to do is hop in the sauna to stimulate this process.
Increased Brain Function
Just when you thought things couldn't get any better, they do. Saunas have also been shown to increase brain function by increasing norepinephrine and BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor). Norepinephrine acts as both a hormone and neurotransmitter and has been shown to help increase focus and attention; two things which are vital to hitting your goals. BDNF on the other hand plays a vital role in keeping our neurons healthy and thriving. BDNF has been shown in a multitude of studies to increase neurogenesis (formation of new neurons), maintain the health of the neurons we already have and also increase neuroplasticity (helping us learn new skills). You may as well think of the sauna as a nootropic.