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Health Hack #36 - The Power Of Heat

Cause or Correlation?

Each year a panel of global contributors issue a World Happiness Report, and the report ranks countries in terms of the overall happiness of the general population. The findings range in excess of 100 pages, and pull from a wide arena of factors, ranging from climate, to economic conditions like GDP and social support, to life expectancy. For the past few years, Finland has come in at #1. Not far behind are other Scandinavian countries, namely Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. This is a trend that has been on repeat for years on end.

As anyone who has visited Scandinavia will know, sauna is deeply embedded in the culture, and public saunas are as ubiquitous in urban Scandinavia as are laundromats in urban U.S. cities. We’re not talking about places with gym equipment and a small hot room tucked in the rear of the locker room. These are brick and mortar institutions devoted predominantly towards the use of sauna, steam rooms, etc., and used mostly by members whose sole objective is to use the facility for the heat exposure.

There is no direct causal link that ties sauna to overall happiness. But given the science that has been emerging around saunas over the last few years, it’s probably not purely coincidental that the nations that gave birth to and still cherish the sauna tradition are all at the top of the happiness heap. As it turns out, saunas – or more likely, consistent heat exposure in general – kick-start a great deal of feel good effects, both physiologically and mentally.

The Findings of Consistent Sauna Use

Not surprisingly, the bulk of the data derives from Finland. Via an ongoing, population-based study of over 2,300 middle aged men, clear links have emerged between sauna use with both reduced mortality risk, as well as decreased susceptibility to overall disease. A 27% reduction in cardiovascular-related death and overall disease acquisition was marked between those men who used a sauna 2-3 times per week versus those who didn’t use a sauna. The findings also turned out to be dose dependent. Those men who visited a sauna 4-5 times per week saw a 50% reduction in cardiovascular-related deaths over those who weren’t sauna users. Please keep in mind that the study in reference was taking into account potentially conflating factors, and sought to find sauna use as the key differentiating variable amongst participants.

In addition to cardiovascular safeguarding, sauna use also appears quite efficacious when it comes to warding off Alzheimer’s Disease and all forms of dementia. Marked as a percentage increase of risk reduction, sauna has an even larger impact of neurological degeneration than cardiovascular-related mortality. Those who used sauna 2-3 times per week were 66% less likely to acquire Alzheimer’s or dementia of any kind than those who used sauna 0-1 times per week.

Believe it or not, the benefits list goes on and on, and the following are derived from a variety of other studies as well, tracking a cohesive pattern surrounding the power of heat:

 • Immune protection, via the creation of Heat Shock Proteins

 • Hormonal enhancement, equivalent to a 30-60 session of exercise

 • Anti-inflammatory effects, via the suppression of C-reactive protein (CRP)

 • Depression reducing, marked by an increase in IL-6

It’s All In The Heat

If you’ve ever completed a hot yoga class or know someone who has, chances are that you’re aware of the feel-good sensation upon wrapping things up. If you’ve ever taken the same class hot as you have at a more moderate temperature (say in the upper 70’s), then there’s a very good chance you’ve experienced a distinct difference upon completing each. The hot version of class is almost assuredly more draining; but the rebound effect is markedly enhanced. In other words, for as beaten down as you may feel with 15 minutes remaining, you feel an equivalent degree of vitality 15 minutes after class has finished. The high and low range of overall “feel good-ness” is simply more confined when the heat is eliminated.

The ideal prescription for maximum sauna benefit is (using a dry sauna in this context, as opposed to an infrared sauna or a “wet sauna” aka steam room) is at around 175 degrees for 20-25 minutes. A traditional hot yoga class lasts 60 minutes. Interestingly, core body temperature achieved at the conclusion of the 25-minute sauna session is identical to that at the conclusion of an hour-long hot yoga class. The same cascades of health benefits deriving from sauna use are known to stem from hot yoga. The real magic is in the heat.

What To Keep In Mind When Building a Heat Exposure Practice

1. Honor Hormesis

A term oft used in the health and wellness world, hormesis is beautifully articulate at getting to the crux of the benefits of heat exposure. What is not useful or potentially even quite dangerous in high doses may happen to be extremely beneficial when dosed properly. Heat exposure possesses a plethora of rehabilitative properties when dosed properly. Overdoing things can be dangerous regardless of the activity, but high heat exposure is particularly sensitive here. Dehydration is a legitimate concern, which can be avoided via proper dosing, or in this context, the appropriate duration spent under heat stress. Being properly hydrated and mineralized goes a very long way when we sweat extensively for a prolonged period of time.

2. Take what you can get

Like the Paleo versus Vegan rivalry, there is much debate within sauna camps as to which method is most ideal. On the one end is what’s known as dry sauna. If your gym has a sauna, then there’s a 95% chance it’s a dry one. Dry heat, low humidity. The heat source alters the temperature of the ambient air, which compels your body temperature to rise and invites you to sweat and sweat and sweat. Infrared saunas are positioned as a rival to the dry sauna. With an infrared unit, the ambient air isn’t as high, because electromagnetic radiation directly warms your body. The ambient air (aka the temperature gage affixed to the unit) will generally be much lower in an infrared unit than a dry one, but core body temperature increases can still be fairly equivalent. Then there are wet saunas, also known as steam rooms. These need not require explanation, as we’re all familiar with the high humidity, the abundance of steam, and the sopping wetness of the entire room. For the sake of reaping health benefits, simply use what you have access to. As noted above, even allow a hot yoga studio to serve as your heat exposure vessel. Some may be more beneficial than others, but all are better than nothing.

3. Spread the Love

Traditional Finnish sauna practices involve quite a bit of socialization. This may seem odd, keeling over in sweat beside a close friend. But have you ever endured a rigorous hot yoga class or intense hour-long spin class by yourself? There’s something about battling with a small battalion beside you that compels you to push a step beyond where you may push if alone. And whether you have a sauna buddy or not, at the very least share your experiences with those closest to you, and ask for them to spread the love also. It’s often quite difficult for someone on the sidelines to start an exercise practice, and if they’re out of the know, it can be dangerous and intimating, and hiring a trainer to mitigate these concerns can be quite expensive. The barriers to entry for a heat exposure practice are incredibly low and easy when you consider the rewards. Most gyms have them, and nowadays at home units are available online which in some cases aren’t much more costly than a yearlong gym membership. Keep in mind that the cardiovascular and cognitive benefits that stem from routine sauna use are shown to be fairly consistent with the benefits stemming from a moderate exercise regimen.

Covid-19 has obviously put the kibosh on our access to gym saunas. But once things turn around, consider taking advantage of your gym’s facilities when they reopen, or maybe even consider seeking out a gym with heat resources if your gym doesn’t possess one, or if you’re not a current gym member. As more and more science continues to emerge, there appears to be no denying the power of heat.

Stay Hot