Hyperthermia & Health: The Benefits of Using a Sauna

Ahhh, the sauna. It’s an age-old experience that brings peace, calm, relaxation and even a little bit of luxury to mind. What you may not know, however, is that sitting in a sauna is also one of the best activities for releasing toxins and can be a great way to boost your immune system.

What Is Hyperthermia?

All saunas raise your body temperature above the typical 98.6 degrees. This is called hyperthermia.

Creating hyperthermia to the point of heat exhaustion or stroke can be extremely dangerous, but controlled hyperthermia, or thermotherapy, comes with many proven health benefits that may surprise you. Did you know that temperature plays a part in almost every interaction that occurs in your body, and that a low base body temperature often accompanies many common disease conditions?

“Heat is a form of energy, and every reaction in a human body occurs at a certain energy or temperature level [1],” says Dr. Mark Sircus, Ac., OMD, a prolific author and expert in natural medicine.

Diabetes, hypothyroidism, infection, sepsis, cancer, chronic stress, and drug addiction are among the conditions which are often accompanied by lower overall body temperature.

According to Dr. Nobuhiro Yoshimuzi, author of the book The Fourth Treatment for Medical Refugees, a mere 1-degree decline in overall body temperature results in a 40% decline in immune function [2].

The opposite is also true, however. If your overall body temperature increases by one degree, there can be a 40% increase in immune function. Also, many studies have shown that controlled hyperthermia can help with some disease conditions, including cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute, “research has shown that high temperatures can damage and kill cancer cells, usually with minimal injury to normal tissues [3].”

How Heat Shock Proteins Can Help Prevent Disease

Hyperthermia aids your body by “stressing it out” just a little bit. As we usually hear that stress is bad, this may seem counterintuitive. But remember that we are talking about short bursts of heat-induced stress, such as being in a sauna for no more than 10 minutes followed by a cool-down and lots of water.

This kind of stress is called hormesis. Hormesis kick-starts the production of substances in the body called Heat Shock Proteins, or HSPs. While damaged HSPs can be detrimental, healthy HSPs in your system instigate a cascade of good news for your body by boosting healthy mitochondrial function.

What Are Mitochondria?

Mitochondria are the “energy generators” of your cells. HSPs help to remove old and worn mitochondria while generating new ones, which help prevent disease.

The benefits of hyperthermia in generating HPSs are especially important as we age. Studies show that the older we are, the less adept our bodies are at producing HSPs.

An in vivo study conducted by the University of Texas, San Antonio, and published in the Journal of Gerontology found that aging resulted in a decrease in the immune substances needed to synthesize certain kinds of heat shock proteins. In some cases, the rate of decrease was close to 40% [4].

Dry, Wet, and Infrared: Types of Saunas and What They Do

saunaAll saunas, from the traditional Finnish saunas to more modern infrared saunas, use heat to elicit the healing mechanisms of hyperthermia as well as detoxification through the sweat glands.

A comprehensive study conducted in 2009 at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona, found that “regular sauna therapy (either radiant heat or far infrared units) appears to be safe and offers multiple health benefits to regular users,” helping with chronic conditions, environmentally-induced illness, and even addictions [5].

Here are just a few of the different kinds of saunas available today and what they can do:

Dry Saunas

A dry sauna is simply a small room that is heated using hot rocks or other means. A dry sauna is perhaps the fastest way to relax from the stresses of the day and can provide you with all the benefits of controlled hyperthermia as mentioned above.

It will relax tired muscles and make you sweat, which can help remove surface-level toxins. It can also open pores, cleanse the skin, and remove excess sodium from the body.

The jury is still out, however, as to how effective dry saunas can be for removing toxins embedded deep within tissues.

Wet Saunas

A wet sauna is also called a “steam room” and uses steam to heat up a small enclosure to between 100 to 114 degrees Fahrenheit (approx 38-46°C). Wet saunas provide all of the benefits of dry saunas and more. Spending about 10 to 15 minutes in the steam room can be good for the sinuses since the humidity opens them up and loosens mucus.

If you are asthmatic, you may want to avoid wet saunas since the humidity may bring on an attack. Like dry saunas, most evidence does not support deep detoxification while using a wet sauna. Even so, the relaxation and hyperthermia benefits have made wet saunas an enduring popular choice.

Infrared Saunas

Infrared saunas are also known as low-level light therapy, photobiomodulation, red light therapy, or simply “heat therapy.” They come in three types: Near, far, and full spectrum.

Infrared saunas use light therapy to mimic certain aspects of the sun. Sunlight contains both visible and invisible light; examples of invisible light are infrared and ultraviolet.

While ultraviolet light can be harmful to the body, infrared rays can penetrate deep into tissues where they can “dislodge and dissolve” harmful toxins, revitalize cells, and boost metabolism.

The difference between the three kinds of infrared saunas has to do with the length of the light wave they use.

Near-infrared is the shortest wavelength (just beyond visible light) and can be absorbed below the surface of the skin for a gentle yet powerful detoxifying sweat.

Far infrared saunas provide the longest wavelength, which some manufacturers claim can penetrate up to 9 inches into the body, increasing circulation and releasing oxygen. Full-spectrum saunas provide the ability to adjust the wavelength depending on need.

Most evidence-based studies have been conducted on far infrared saunas. A 2009 meta-analysis conducted by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, looked at the cardiovascular benefits of far infrared sauna use.

It found that far infrared saunas can be beneficial for “normalizing blood pressure and treating congestive heart failure… chronic pain… chronic fatigue syndrome and [normalizing] cholesterol [levels] [6].”

Maximizing Your Sauna Experience: 10 Tips Before You Sweat

Follow these ten tips for a calming, healthy, and safe sauna experience:

#1: Don’t overdo it. Pay attention to how you’re feeling and check in with your body every two minutes or so. Be aware of signs indicating that you have been in too long. These include drowsiness, dizziness, headache, and nausea. Never fall asleep in the sauna!

#2: Take breaks. You want to take breaks to drink water and cool down before you get to the point of feeling any kind of discomfort or pain. While everyone is different, most individuals take a break about every 10 minutes.

#3: Consider hot/cold therapy along with your sauna. During a break is a great time to take a cold shower, if one is available. Yes, it is a bit torturous at first to plunge into cold water after your body has been heated up. On the other hand, you may come to enjoy the refreshing feeling that hot/cold therapy can provide. Hot/cold therapy has also been known to increase circulation.

#4: Drink LOTS of water. Water is a must before, during, and especially after your sauna experience. Most experts advise a full 16 ounces of water before going into a sauna and between 16 to 32 ounces when you are done to avoid dehydration. “Detox waters” are a tasty way to stay hydrated and aid in detoxing the body naturally.

#5: Don’t go in with a full belly. Eating a large meal right before the sauna can lead to nausea and even vomiting for some. Wait until after your sauna when your digestive system and body are in “relaxation mode” before enjoying a good meal.
infographic with list of sauna health benefits
#6: Never drink alcohol or do drugs while in the sauna. Drinking, smoking, or using drugs while exposing yourself to high heat can be extremely dangerous and can lead to seizures, coma, and even death.

#7: Never enter a steam room that is above 114 degrees F. 100 to 114 degrees is the typical range in which steam rooms operate. If it seems too hot, be sure to contact someone to check the temperature right away.

#8: Use caution when applying essential oils. Essential oils can be a great addition to your steam experience. Peppermint can open the sinuses while lavender can help you relax. Citrus essential oil can be reinvigorating, while tea tree is an anti-microbial. However, if you are in a public sauna, there may be others who are sensitive to these scents, so it is a good idea not to use them. Remember that a little goes a long way when it comes to essential oils, especially in a steam room. Start out with a drop or two. Too much essential oil can burn the skin and eyes.

#9: Practice good hygiene. Public saunas, in particular, can be breeding grounds for opportunistic bacteria. Always sit on a towel and wear waterproof sandals to avoid being exposed to pathogenic microbes.

#10: Know when to say NO to the Sauna. If you are pregnant, menopausal, suffer from migraine headaches, have high blood pressure, have heart disease/cardiovascular disorder, have hormonal imbalances, or a temperature-regulation issue such as hyperthyroidism or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, take caution when using a sauna. Talk to a qualified health professional before using.

Hopefully, this article has given you a little more information on what modern versions of this ancient detoxification experience can do. There are many benefits to using a sauna; whether dry, wet, or infrared, all saunas evoke controlled hyperthermia and can benefit the body if used correctly. Consider giving them a try today!

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