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Sauna Use as an Exercise Mimetic for Heart Health

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By: Joseph Mercola

It stresses your heart and body in a similar way to exercise, cuts your risk of fatal heart problems in half, and may lower your risk of Alzheimer’s by 65 percent and dementia by 66 percent, according to studies.

When it comes to improving your health, some of the simplest strategies can have a tremendous impact. Sweating in a sauna, for example, has many great health benefits, including expelling toxins, improving blood circulation, killing disease-causing microbes, and improving mitochondrial function.

The key word here is sweating. Just because you are in the sauna doesn’t mean you get the benefits. The sauna has to heat your core temperature a few degrees, your heart rate needs to increase, and you need to have a river of sweat, otherwise, you simply will not get these benefits. This is important as many infrared saunas fail to heat you sufficiently to achieve these benefits.

Research has even shown that regular sauna use correlates with a reduced risk of death from any cause, including lethal cardiovascular events, and may help stave off Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

For example, researchers in Finland—a country where most homes come equipped with a sauna—found that men who used a sauna four to seven times a week for an average of 15 minutes had a 66 percent lower risk of developing dementia, and 65 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s, compared to men who used the sauna just once a week. [1][2]

Most studies on sauna use involve wet Finnish saunas. Traditionally, rocks are heated to a temperature of about 174 degrees Fahrenheit in a wood-burning stove, and water is then poured on the rocks to create steam. Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

How Sauna Bathing Promotes Good Heart Health

Another long-term study [3] by the same Finnish research team, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2015, revealed that men who used the Finnish-style, dry-heat sauna seven times per week also cut their risk of death from fatal heart problems in half, compared to those who used it only once a week.

This held even after confounding factors such as smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels were factored in. Regarding time, the greatest benefits were found among those who sweated it out for 19 minutes or more each session.

Both the duration and the frequency had dose-dependent effects, so the longer the exposure time of each session and the more frequent the sessions, the better the outcome.

One mechanism for this effect is thought to be related to the fact that heat stresses your heart and body in ways similar to exercise, thus prompting similar effects. This includes increased blood flow to your heart and muscles (which increases athletic endurance) and increased muscle mass due to greater levels of heat shock proteins and human growth hormone (HGH).

In the video lecture [4][5] above, Rhonda Patrick, who holds a doctorate in biomedical science, reviews how sauna bathing can be used as an exercise mimetic (i.e., an exercise-mimicking tool) to increase your longevity and health span. As noted by Patrick: [6]

“Several studies have shown that frequent sauna bathing (four to seven times per week, 174°F for 20 minutes) is associated with a 50 percent lower risk for fatal heart disease, 60 percent lower risk for sudden cardiac death, 51 percent lower risk for stroke, and 46 percent lower risk for hypertension.

“Just a single sauna session has been shown to lower blood pressure, improve heart rate variability, and improve arterial compliance. Some of the positive benefits of the sauna on heart health may have to do with similar physiological changes that also occur during physical exercise.

“For example, there is a 50 to 70 percent redistribution of blood flow away from the core to the skin to facilitate sweating. You start to sweat. Heart rate increases up to 150 beats per minute which corresponds to moderate-intensity physical exercise.

“Cardiac output (which is a measure of the amount of work the heart performs in response to the body’s need for oxygen) increases by 60 to 70 percent. Immediately after sauna use, blood pressure and resting heart rate are lower than baseline similar to physical activity.”

What Studies Show

Patrick reviews several studies in her lecture. In addition to those already mentioned, a study [7] published in 2018, using the same Finnish cohort, looked specifically at stroke risk over a follow-up period of 14.9 years. As in previous studies, benefits were dose-dependent.

Compared to once-a-week sauna use, those who had four to seven sessions per week had a 61 percent lower risk for stroke. A similar association was found for ischemic stroke but not for hemorrhagic stroke. As noted by the authors:

“This long-term follow-up study shows that middle-aged to elderly men and women who take frequent sauna baths have a substantially reduced risk of new-onset stroke.”

Heat stress from sauna bathing has also been shown to lower your risk of high blood pressure. In one such study, [8] which had a median follow-up of 24.7 years, the hazard ratio for high blood pressure in those using the sauna two to three times a week was 0.76, compared to 0.54 for those using it four to seven times a week.

In other words, using it two to three times a week may lower your risk of high blood pressure by 24 percent, while using it four to seven times a week can push your risk down by 46 percent, and this is likely one of the mechanisms by which sauna bathing helps lower your cardiovascular mortality risk.

Even a single sauna session has been shown to reduce pulse wave velocity, blood pressure, mean arterial pressure, and left ventricular ejection time. [9] Here, systolic blood pressure decreased from an average of 137 mmHg before sauna bathing to 130 mmHg afterward. Diastolic blood pressure decreased from 82 to 75 mmHg, mean arterial pressure from 99.4 to 93.6 mmHg and left ventricular ejection time from 307 to 278 m/s.

There are several other types of saunas to choose from as well, including far-infrared saunas (pictured above) and near-infrared emitters and lamps. Photo Credit: finnleo.com

Different Types of Saunas

Most studies on sauna use involve wet Finnish saunas. Traditionally, rocks are heated to a temperature of about 174 degrees Fahrenheit in a wood-burning stove, and water is then poured on the rocks to create steam.

But there are several other types of saunas to choose from as well, including far-infrared saunas and near-infrared emitters and lamps. [10] Most sauna makers would have you believe that the difference between an infrared sauna and the traditional Finnish-style saunas (whether wet or dry) is that the Finnish-style sauna heats you from the outside in, like an oven.

But this is simply untrue. The wavelengths of a far-infrared sauna only penetrate a few millimeters, so if you have a far-infrared sauna, unless the temperature in the sauna is around 170 degrees Fahrenheit, it is unlikely you will be getting many benefits.

That said, near-infrared saunas have several additional benefits over other types of saunas, including far-infrared saunas. For starters, it penetrates your tissue more effectively than far-infrared because wavelengths under 900 nanometers (nm) in the near-infrared are not absorbed by water like the higher wavelengths in mid- and far-infrared, and thus can penetrate tissues more deeply.

When you look at the rainbow spectrum, the visible part of light ends in red. Infrared-A (near-infrared) is the beginning of the invisible light spectrum following red. This in turn is followed by infrared-B (mid-infrared) and infrared-C (far-infrared).

While they cannot be seen, the mid- and far-infrared range can be felt as heat. This does not apply to near-infrared, however, which has a wavelength between 700 and 1,400 nm. To learn more about this, see my interview with Dr. Alexander Wunsch, a world-class expert on photobiology.

Near-Infrared Radiation Is Important for Optimal Health

My personal sauna preference is the near-infrared, as this range affects your health in several important ways, [11] primarily through its interaction with chromophores in your body. Chromophores are molecules that absorb light, found in your mitochondria and water molecules. (To make sure the near-infrared rays can penetrate your skin, avoid wearing clothing when using a near-infrared sauna.)

In your mitochondria, there’s a specific light-absorbing molecule called cytochrome c oxidase (CCO), which is part of the mitochondrial electron transport chain and absorbs near-infrared light around 830 nm. CCO is involved in energy production within the mitochondria. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP)—cellular energy—is the end product. ATP is the fuel your cells need for all of their varied functions, including ion transport, synthesis, and metabolism.

Most people don’t realize that light is an important and necessary fuel just like food. When your bare skin is exposed to near-infrared light, CCO will increase ATP production. Near-infrared light is also healing and repairing, and helps optimize many other biological functions. (Its absence in artificial light sources like LEDs and fluorescents is what makes these light sources so dangerous to your health.)

We now know that mitochondrial dysfunction is at the heart of most health problems and chronic diseases, including many signs of aging. For these reasons, I strongly recommend using a sauna that offers a full spectrum of infrared radiation, not just far-infrared.

Just keep in mind that most infrared saunas emit dangerous electromagnetic fields (EMFs), so look for one that emits low or no non-native EMFs. You need to look beyond company claims and measure them, as many state they have no EMF but have only addressed magnetic fields and still generate off-the-chart electric fields. Ultimately, you need to independently validate any claims, as some of the biggest names in the business are doing this.

The near IR sauna I use and highly recommend is made by Sauna Space and I use it every day I am at home. It has lower EMFs than ANY electrically heated far IR sauna. While some far IR saunas do have relatively low magnetic fields around 1 mG, they are still higher than Sauna Space. But any electric heater far IR sauna has very high electric fields while Sauna Space has zero.

If you already have a far IR sauna you can use it as an enclosure and just purchase the Sauna Space bulbs which are far less expensive.

Far-Infrared Sauna Benefits Chronic Heart Conditions

All of that said, in her lecture, Patrick discusses the benefits of Waon therapy or far-infrared dry sauna, which has been used in some studies. Far-infrared saunas typically have a max temperature of about 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius). Because it’s not as hot, the recommended duration is typically around 45 minutes, and the frequency is daily. Two studies looking at Waon therapy for heart health include:

A 2016 study [12] that found Waon therapy was helpful for the management of chronic heart failure, improving endurance, heart size, and overall status in hospitalized patients with advanced heart failure. Patients used the far-infrared dry sauna, set at 140 degrees F, for 15 minutes a day for 10 days. Each session was followed by bed rest for 30 minutes, covered with a blanket.

An earlier study, [13] published in 2013, found Waon therapy improved myocardial perfusion in patients with chronically occluded coronary artery-related ischemia. Patients used the far-infrared dry sauna, set at 140 degrees F, for 15 minutes a day for three weeks. Each session was followed by bed rest for 30 minutes, covered with a blanket. The best results were seen in patients with the highest summed stress score and summed difference score at baseline. The improvements were attributed to improved vascular endothelial function, and according to the authors, Waon therapy “could be a complementary and alternative tool in patients with severe coronary lesions not suitable for coronary intervention.”

How Your Body Responds to Heat

As mentioned, one of the reasons sauna bathing improves health has to do with the fact that it mimics the stress your body undergoes during exercise. While “stress” is typically perceived as a bad thing, intermittent stressors such as exercise and temporary heat stress actually produce beneficial physiological changes.

As explained by Patrick, once your core temperature reaches 102.2 degrees F (39 degrees C), blood is redistributed away from your core toward the surface of your skin to facilitate sweating. You can easily get an inexpensive ear thermometer to measure and confirm that your temperature is reaching this level.

Your heart rate increases from about 60 beats per minute to about 150, equivalent to moderate-intensity exercise, and your cardiac output increases by 60 to 70 percent. This process is the same whether your core temperature is raised by exercise or sitting still in a sauna.  (TheEpochTimes.com)

This article was originally published on Feb. 22, 2023, on Mercola.com

1] Age and Ageing March 2017; 46(2): 245-249

[2] Reuters January 19, 2017

[3] JAMA Internal Medicine 2015;175(4):542-548

[4] Youtube, Sauna Use as an Exercise Mimetic for Heart and Healthspan

[5] Youtube, Sauna Use as an Exercise Mimetic for Heart and Healthspan show notes

[6] Youtube, Sauna Use as an Exercise Mimetic for Heart and Healthspan show notes

[7] Neurology May 29, 2018; 90(22)

[8] American Journal of Hypertension 2017 Nov 1;30(11):1120-1125

[9] Eur J Prev Cardiol. 2018 Jan;25(2):130-138

[10] Dr. Lawrence Wilson, Sauna Therapy

[11] Dr. Lawrence Wilson, Benefits of Near Infrared Energy

[12] Circulation Journal 2016;80(4):827-34

[13] International Journal of Cardiology 2013 Jul 15;167(1):237-43

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