Exposure to heat activates special proteins in your body called heat-shock proteins (HSPs). These HSPs protect our cells from damage from heat, yet also have many other functions that science is just beginning to understand. Here are some of the benefits of heat exposure and how to expose yourself for the most health benefits.
- Lowered risk of neurodegenerative diseases — People who take saunas have shown a lower risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The most likely reason for this is because saunas increase the production of HSPs, which help to properly fold and degrade proteins throughout the body, including the brain. This helps prevent the formation of misfolded proteins which are linked to many neurodegenerative diseases. R, R2, R3
- Lowered risk of cardiovascular disease — One study showed a 32% increase in time till exhaustion after taking a 89.9+/-2.0 degrees C sauna (mean+/-standard deviation) immediately post-exercise for 31+/-5 min on 12.7+/-2.1 occasions.
- Aids weight-loss — Saunas appear to normalize our ghrelin levels (hunger increasing hormone) which benefits both weight-loss and weight-gain. Weight-loss has been noticed after only two weeks of taking 15 minute saunas at 60 degrees C. R
- Lowered risk of mortality — That’s right, one longitudinal study found that their participants were less likely to die compared to the controls, at least for the duration of this 20.7 year study (median range) (R). Unfortunately, mortality risk for humans still appears to be 100% in the long term.
- Aids exercise recovery — Increased levels of heat shock proteins and growth hormone levels may help to preserve damaged muscle tissue post exercise and increase protein synthesis. Both these effects lead to increased anabolism from exercise and improved recovery. R
To expose yourself safely, consider buying a far-infrared sauna like this one. Traditional steam saunas are healthy too and appear safe for most people (R), but can get very hot and may not be as suitable for people with certain health conditions.
If you can’t afford a sauna, consider getting a gym membership to a place that has a sauna/steam room. Or, for the simplest possible sauna experience, park your car in a sunny spot with the windows rolled up and then sit in it for 30-60 minutes after it’s hot.
Always talk to your doctor before taking a sauna or sweating in your car. If you ever feel uncomfortable while taking a sauna, then get out. Saunas are intended to be relaxing.
Some of the research on sauna health benefits may be confounded by the fact that many people who take saunas expose themselves to the cold after (they live in cold environments). More research is needed to determine the benefits of the combination of cold and heat stress on health. For now, I think it’s safe to say that sauna use and other forms of transient heat exposure have incredible health benefits. R