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 of toxins, improving blood circulation, killing disease-causing microbes and improving mitochondrial function.
Sauna Bathing Promotes Brain Health
Most recently, 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 length 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 only once a week.1
More than 2,300 middle-aged men were followed for more than two decades in this study, and the results held even after other healthy lifestyle factors were taken into account, such as exercise and socioeconomic factors.
How Sauna Use Helps Boost Brain Function
Other research3 has shown sauna use increases levels of norepinephrine, a stress hormone that increases focus and attention, as well as prolactin, which may promote myelin growth, helping your brain to function faster and repair nerve cell damage.
Researchers have also found a link between heat exposure and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which activates brain stem cells to convert into new neurons. BDNF also triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health.
They found that exercising in heat increased the permeability of the blood-brain barrier, which is thought to stimulate cerebral output of BDNF. Heat stress also benefits your brain by:5
- Preventing aggregation of proteins in your arteries and brain
- Increasing production of dynorphin, which helps cool your body down. Although dynorphin has the opposite effect of endorphins, it sensitizes your brain to endorphins that your body produces
- Increasing production of growth factors, which in turn promote the growth of brain neurons
Sauna Benefits Your Heart as Well
Previous findings by the same Finnish research team 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. 6,7,8,9,10
These findings remained stable even when confounding factors such as smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels were factored in. In regard to time, the greatest benefits were found among those who sweated it out for 19 minutes or more each session.
One mechanism for this effect is thought to be related to the fact that the heat places stress on your heart and body similar to that of exercise. Conversely, hyperthermic conditioning (i.e., acclimating yourself to heat independent of aerobic physical activity through sauna use) can also boost your exercise endurance.
It does this by inducing adaptations in your body that make it easier for you to perform when your body temperature is elevated. Stated another way; as your body is subjected to heat stress, it gradually becomes acclimated to the heat, prompting a number of beneficial changes and adaptations.
This includes increased blood flow to your heart and muscles (which increase athletic endurance) and increased muscle mass due to greater levels of heat-shock proteins and human growth hormone (HGH).
Compared to traditional saunas, athletes using infrared saunas also report greater recovery from strength and endurance training sessions.11
Heat, Sweat and Detoxification
Your skin is the largest organ in your body and your sweat glands are one way of cleansing your skin and releasing toxins that build up in your cells. Lack of sweating may actually result in an increased toxic load over time, which in turn can adversely affect your heart and brain.
Compared to other detoxification strategies, sauna bathing has a number of benefits, and may be one of the best, if not the best, strategy to lower your toxic load in a natural way.
As discussed in my interview with Dr. George Yu, the mobilization of stored toxins can be further enhanced by taking niacin in conjunction with sauna bathing.
While still often downplayed by modern medicine as a means of detoxification, studies have shown that sweating can help excrete heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic, lead and mercury,12 for example, all of which can have very serious health effects.
In one such study, sweat generally exceeded plasma or urine concentrations of toxins. According to the authors, sweating “deserves consideration for toxic element detoxification,” adding that:13
- Sweat may be an important route for excretion of cadmium when an individual is exposed to high levels
- Sweat-inducing sauna use might provide a therapeutic method to increase elimination of toxic trace metals
- Sweating should be the initial and preferred treatment of patients with elevated mercury levels
Other Health Benefits of Sauna Therapy
Sauna use may also help your body excrete nonbiological halides, like bromine or fluoride that displace iodine. This is particularly important if you have thyroid issues.
A lack of sweating or an inability to sweat is often a sign of hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid). Hypothyroidism may be exacerbated by halides found in baked goods, soft drinks, pesticides, fire retardants and other products.
These halides bind to the same receptors in your thyroid used to capture iodine, necessary for the production of thyroid hormones. This results in a low production of thyroid hormone and symptoms of hypothyroidism.
The more you can excrete the halides (and reduce your exposure), the more iodine your body can use to produce thyroid hormones.
Individuals suffering from fibromyalgia have also experienced great results from using saunas to reduce discomfort and pain. In one small study, 44 patients with fibromyalgia found a reduction in pain between 33 and 77 percent.
Six months after the study ended, the participants continued to report a reduction in pain between 28 and 68 percent.14
Sauna therapy has also demonstrated benefits for patients with asthma, bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).15 Patients with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis report positive effects from infrared sauna therapy specifically. After four weeks and eight treatments, pain and stiffness were significantly reduced and improvements were seen in fatigue.16
Anecdotally, one of my senior staff writers reports successfully treating all sorts of aches and pains using a portable tent-style low-EMF infrared sauna, including headaches and general pains associated with menstruation, stiff knees, shoulder and back pain, and even migraines.
She started using it four times a week for 30 minutes per session at 150 degrees by recommendation from her doctor after being diagnosed with lead and aluminum toxicity, and was pleasantly surprised to notice its acute effects on various aches and pains as well.
Different Types of Saunas
There are several different types of saunas to choose from these days, including:17
- Finnish sauna, either wet or dry
- Far-infrared saunas
- Near-infrared saunas (emitters and lamps)
The difference between an infrared sauna and the traditional Finnish-style saunas (whether wet or dry) is that the Finnish-style sauna heats you up from the outside in, like an oven. The infrared sauna heats you from the inside out. Infrared saunas are particularly known for their ability to promote detoxification, and this is part of the reason for that.
By heating your tissues several inches deep, the infrared sauna can enhance your natural metabolic processes and blood circulation. It also helps oxygenate your tissues.
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