I have a confession to make: I'm an addict.
Every morning I wipe the crust out of the corner of my eyes, suck down a giant cup of coffee, and then wander to my basement gym, where I commence to flip the power on my sauna. I step inside, and sweat hard and heavy for 15 to 30 minutes. Sometimes I do yoga, sometimes I do kettlebell swings, sometimes I simply stare at the wall and meditate, but always I feel pangs of guilt, desire and an intense urge to go sweat if I ever miss my daily sauna session.
On the rare morning that I can't find time to sauna, I carve out time in the afternoon or evening (usually after my workout, for reasons you're about to read).
It's been nearly 45 days since I've missed a single sauna session.
So yes, there, I admit it: I am a sauna addict. Knowing that I can venture downstairs and enter into a private chamber that gives my body a myriad of benefits simply makes a sauna sit a daily must for me.
Why the sauna? Am I a heat masochist? Addicted to sweating? An introverted loner who thrives on staring at wooden wall slats as my heart races faster and faster to rapidly pump blood through my body in desperate attempts to keep me cool?
Frankly, there are many reasons I "sauna". 10, in fact. In no particular order of importance here they are:
1. Heart Health and Longevity
A new report in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that regularly spending time in a sauna may help keep the heart healthy and extend life. Researchers from the University of Eastern Finland tracked 2,300 middle-aged men for an average of 20 years. The men spent an average of around 15 minutes per sauna visit, and over the course of the study, 49 percent of men who went to a sauna once a week died, compared with 38 percent of those who went two to three times a week and just 31 percent of those who went four to seven times a week.
Frequent visits to a sauna were also associated with lower death rates from cardiovascular disease and stroke. Researchers reported that this was likely due to the decrease in blood pressure and an increase in blood vessel diameter that both infrared exposure and heat exposure can provide.
Having spent time last month in Finland sitting buck-naked in a traditional Finnish smoke sauna, surrounded by old guys who definitely seemed more ripped and vibrant than their fat Western counterparts, I can certainly attest to the fact that there's something special going on with this Finnish tradition.
2. Detoxification Of Chemicals And Heavy Metals
The skin is a major detox organ, and sweating through the skin is a critical human detox function, yet most people don't sweat regularly or enough. Think detoxing is a woo-woo, airy-fairy, pushing-giant-shopping-carts-full-of-kale-through-Whole-Foods myth? Think again. You may want to read this.
As you'll see if you read that article above, the body is very effective at eliminating toxins via the skin (and the liver, and the poo), but the skin side of things only really works if you make your body sweat. But many of us sit in air-conditioned indoor environments all day, and even gyms with temperature control can be a tough place to work up a serious sweat. So in these type of situations, you completely miss out on a major source of toxin elimination: the skin.
To combat these effects, a sauna can purify the body from the inside out, eliminating compounds such as PCB's, metals and toxins that are stored in fat cells, which can undergo lipolysis and release toxins upon exposure to infrared-based heat. Yep, you read that right: you are going to battle against and killing little screaming fat cells to death when you sweat in a sauna. They don't shrink: they die (especially when combined with niacin, which research has some interesting findings on and which I talk about in more detail here).
3. Athletic Recovery
Growth hormone is crucial for repair and recovery of muscles, and research has shown that two 20-minute sauna sessions separated by a 30-minute cooling period elevated growth hormone levels two-fold over baseline. Two 15-minute sauna sessions at an even warmer temperature separated by a 30-minute cooling period resulted in a five-fold increase in growth hormone.
Perhaps even more nifty is that repeated exposure to whole-body, intermittent hyperthermia through sauna use boosts growth hormone immediately afterward, and two one-hour sauna sessions for seven days has been shown to increase growth hormone by 16-fold. Yeah, that's right: you don't need to go buy fancy supplements or creams to increase growth hormone. You can just make your body hot instead and get a growth hormone increase
It is also important to note that when hyperthermia and exercise are combined, they induce a synergistic increase in growth hormone, which is why I do yoga, push-ups and squats in my infrared sauna. For an additional recovery benefit, sauna also increases blood flow to the skeletal muscles, which helps to keep them fueled with glucose, amino acids, fatty acids, and oxygen, while removing by-products of metabolic processes such as lactic acid and calcium ions.
4. Arthritic and Muscular Pain Relief
In a report in The Annals of Clinical Research Volume 20, Dr. H. Isomäki discusses research results that show benefits of sauna for relief of pain and increased mobility. In the study, the pain relief induced by a sauna was attributed to an increase in the release of have anti-inflammatory compounds such as noradrenaline, adrenaline, cortisol and growth hormones, as well as an increase in positive stress on the body, causing it to releases natural pain-killing endorphins. More than 50 percent of participants reported temporary relief of pain and an increase in mobility, most likely due to the fact that tissues comprised of collagen, such as tendons, fascia, and joint articular capsules, become more flexible when exposed to increased temperatures.
Now here's the deal: I don't actually have arthritis. But I do have some pretty freaking gnarly joint pain the day after I've finished a typical workout of heavy squats, sandbag carries, kettlebell swings, hill sprints and tire flips. After my morning sauna session, things seem to melt away (caveat: I have not yet used myself as a N=1control study by sitting and staring at a wooden wall in normal, non-sauna temperatures, but I'm hazarding a guess it wouldn't work as well as a sauna, so I'll skip that study, because it sounds boring).
5. Muscle Gain and Fat Loss
Bigger biceps or a more toned butt by reading a magazine while sweating profusely? It could happen. Sauna conditioning can lend itself to promoting muscle growth and fat loss by improving insulin sensitivity and decreasing muscle protein catabolism. Intermittent hyperthermia has been shown to reduce insulin resistance in obese mice, and in this case insulin resistant diabetic mice were subjected to 30 minutes of heat treatment, three times a week for twelve weeks. The results were a 31 percent decrease in insulin levels and a significant reduction in blood glucose levels, both of which can contribute to an increase in muscle growth and an increase in weight control and fat loss.
It has also been shown that a 30-minute intermittent hyperthermic treatment can cause a significant expression of something called heat shock proteins in muscle, which is correlated with 30 percent more muscle regrowth than a control group during seven days subsequent to a week of immobilization. In other words, let's say you can't weight train, you've got a recovery day or you want to maintain muscle but you're injured. Based on the research cited above, via the use of a sauna instead, you can still maintain muscle.
Stay tuned for Part Two of this series, in which you're going to discover five more reasons I'm a sauna addict, and why you should be too. In the meantime, what are you waiting for? Find a sauna and get your sweat on!