Heat Therapy to Prevent Disease & Increase Longevity
One of the benefits of exercise is that it can help prevent disease, and in turn, extend our lives.
That said, what if there was a way to extend your life that didn’t involve moving?
There is. It’s called deliberate heat exposure, or in other words, thermotherapy or heat therapy.
Deliberate heat exposure is typically experienced through saunas (dry, wet, and infrared), hot tubs, and hot showers. Different forms of heat exposure are heavily practiced in countries throughout the world:
- Finnish sauna (sauna is a Finnish word)
- Russian banya
- Turkish hammam (also known as “Turkish bath”)
- Icelandic spa
- Japanese onsen or sento
They’re practiced for good reason. The use of deliberate heat exposure can be a great way to improve your health and increase your longevity.
Benefits of Heat Therapy
Heat therapy provides a host of benefits for regular practitioners:
Improves your mood. Sauna bathing can release up to three times the amount of endorphins than normal – this is comparable to the “runner’s high” you might experience in a middle distance training run (which leads us to ask the obvious question: why run when you can sauna?). Not only does sauna bathing release endorphins, but it has also been shown to reduce the symptoms of depression.
Improves your cardiovascular health. An oft-cited Finnish study tracked the health of over 2,300 Finnish men to compare their sauna usage to the instances of cardiovascular diseases. The study found that increased frequency of sauna bathing was directly correlated to lowered risk of cardiovascular disease. Another study came to the same conclusion across men and women.
Can improve your cognitive health. In a study that tracked the incidents of dementia in sauna goers, the researchers concluded that sauna bathing at least three times a week was strongly correlated with a reduced risk of dementia.
Lowers your stress response. Sauna bathing has been shown to significantly decrease cortisol, a stress hormone. Chronic stress is a widespread and often unmanageable issue for many people, which makes it difficult for people to keep their cortisol at healthy levels. Sauna bathing is one way to effectively manage cortisol levels.
Increases the release of growth hormones. Sauna bathing changes how some of our hormones are secreted throughout the body – one of those hormones being growth hormones. Growth hormones are in wide demand as they can help increase muscle mass, reduce body fat, and preserve bone mass.
Lowers inflammation in your body. A study showed an inverse correlation between sauna bathing frequency and the level of C-reactive protein (a leading blood marker of systemic inflammation) in a sample of over 2,000 men. The study showed that the more frequently participants used the sauna, their levels of C-reactive protein were significantly lower. Additionally, sauna use has been shown to increase interleukin-6 (IL-6), a pro-inflammatory cytokine that plays an important role in the immune system, and interleukin-10 (IL-10), an anti-inflammatory cytokine.
Can potentially increase your lifespan. Sauna bathing increases FOXO3, a protein in the body responsible for DNA repair and getting rid of senescent cells. Studies have shown that centenarians possess increased or hyperactive levels of FOXO3. Without being genetically blessed to have these amounts of FOXO3 in our bodies, using the sauna frequently can increase FOXO3 in our bodies.
How Does Heat Therapy Work?
The benefits from heat therapy are nothing short of amazing. Scientific studies prove that heat therapy can tangibly improve our health and longevity.
But how? What are the biological mechanisms that make heat therapy so incredible?
Intense short-term heat exposure induces various beneficial physiological effects:
- Activation of heat shock proteins
- Release of hormones
- Vasodilation and increased heart rate
Activation of Heat Shock Proteins
A study showed that when people are exposed to heat stress, or thermal stress, their bodies produce heat shock proteins. Heat shock proteins (HSPs) are a group of proteins that act as “molecular chaperones,” helping other proteins fold correctly (however strange that sounds, suffice it to say: the failure of proteins to fold correctly is related to the pathology of diseases).
The activation of HSPs reduces free radicals, increases the body’s immune response, helps muscles recover quicker, protects the heart, regulates blood glucose levels (read: increases insulin sensitivity), and prevents cell death.
Source: Science Direct
Overall, HSPs help maintain the efficacy of the body, which provides protection against chronic diseases and promotes longevity.
When it comes to stress, there is such a thing as a healthy amount of stress. A healthy amount of stress is the amount that triggers you to adapt, become more resilient, and spur you into positive action.
The same applies to the body’s physiology. Low or moderate levels of a physiological stressor, which would be harmful at higher levels, induces an adaptive response within the body that promotes health and resilience. This process is called hormesis.
Sauna therapy and other forms of heat therapy expose the body to low levels of stress, via heat, which can lead to positive physiological adaptations.
In addition to the activation of HSPs, hormesis can also improve heart health and blood circulation. Furthermore, hormesis can improve blood sugar regulation, increase energy expenditure, release neurotrophic factors, and reduce inflammation.
Stimulation of Hormone Release
Heat therapy can stimulate the release of certain hormones and help regulate others. The use of saunas has been shown to increase growth hormone, beta-endorphins, prolactin, and norepinephrine secretion.
Similar to exercise, sauna bathing will initially increase cortisol in the body, as the body is adapting to thermal stress. However, as we covered before, certain types of stress can be good. Over time, using a sauna can decrease cortisol levels. This is especially the case when combined with cold therapy.
Vasodilation & Increased Heart Rate
When you’re exposed to a hot environment, your skin senses that heat, activates neurons in the preoptic area. This, in turn, activates mechanisms in your autonomic nervous system such as vasodilation (where your blood vessels dilate) and increased heart rate.
This dilation increases blood flow to the skin’s surface, promotes improved circulation throughout the body, and reduces blood pressure. Additionally, your heart rate increases. The combination of these effects looks like cardiovascular exercise. It essentially is, outside of the loading and mobilization of joints. Just like cardiovascular exercise, these effects can improve cardiovascular health and reduce your risk of cardiovascular diseases. Lastly, vasodilation helps to reduce inflammation by increasing blood flow to damaged cells and tissues.
Best Sauna Protocols for Health and Longevity
Now, there are countless studies on sauna bathing that outline specific protocols that result in certain effects, but these protocols can vary from study to study, depending on what the objective of that study was.
So to apply sauna usage to your daily life, what are the conditions you should follow in order to receive maximum benefits from using the sauna?
For increased cardiovascular health, follow these conditions:
- 176 - 212 degrees Fahrenheit
- 5 - 20 minutes per session
- At least 2 - 3 times per week, as often as 7 times per week
For overall health, including stress management, improved mood, and benefits of hormesis, follow the conditions above while making sure you hit at least one hour per week of sauna use, split into two to three sessions. You’ll see in the protocol above, you may or may not use the sauna for an entire hour within a week, so if general health is your goal, you want to make sure you achieve at least that one hour.
Lastly, for the increased release of growth hormone, you’ll want to use the sauna less frequently (once per week or less). On the days you use the sauna, it’s best to alternate between 30 minute sessions and 5 minute cool down periods multiple times, up to four 30-minute sessions. You can optimize the release of growth hormone by using the sauna in a semi-fasted state, where you haven’t eaten for two to three hours prior to using the sauna.
Using a sauna isn’t for the faint of heart. Follow these tips to stay safe and maximize your sauna experience:
- Avoid the sauna if you’re pregnant or younger than 16
- Start at lower temperatures and work your way up
- Men trying to conceive should avoid the sauna, as it can reduce sperm count for a given time
- Drink at least 16 ounces of water for every 10 minutes you spend in the sauna
- Using the sauna later in the day can align with the way your body naturally cools in order to help you fall asleep easier
Unlike the time (and labor) requirements when it comes to exercise, you don’t have to spend hours in the sauna to experience the countless health benefits of this form of heat therapy.
If you can carve out time to incorporate sauna bathing in your longevity toolkit, you’ll get an incredible bang for your buck when it comes to improvements in your cardiovascular health, cognitive health, immune system, stress response, growth hormones, mood, and lifespan.
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