Are you hot enough? How to live longer with a Sauna

Introducing Heat

When I heard about the life promoting health benefits of heat exposure, I did what any self-respecting human would do. I begged my wife to let me buy a sauna. And to her credit, eventually she did. It was a triumphant day when my one-person, low EMF, infrared sauna and salt cave arrived. I immediately assembled it, right in the garage. A beautiful wooden monument, standing as a beacon to everyone in the cul-de-sac, that I was going to live forever. I turned the beautifully crafted sauna on, and immediately sat down for a sweat session. After an hour in the sauna, I did a few google searches to see if infrared saunas were supposed to feel hot. Because this one didn’t feel hot, per se. More of a room temperature feeling. Several blogs reassured me that infrared “doesn’t feel as hot” but to “trust you’re sweating on the inside”. That didn’t sound quite right, but regardless, I scheduled a religious sauna practice. An hour, three times a week. For months. Without a single drop of sweat, but hopeful that I was adding years onto my life. Until one fateful day. I was inspecting the wires above the sauna, hoping to connect the music. When I connected two stray wires that had been previously obscured. After connecting them, I heard a distinct clunk. And then the smell of burnt toast. “Oh dear”, as I realized the heating elements were turning on. Just then. For the first time ever. “Well, I have good news and bad news”, I told my wife. “You mean to tell me you’ve been sitting in a fancy box – in the garage – for months, and it wasn’t even turned on”? She said, through tears of laughter. She was laughing at me. But I felt triumphant because I finally had a sauna, and it was time to get my sweat on! 

Let this be a cautionary tale for us all. If you’re interested in living long, and living well, the Sauna can be a powerful tool. Just make sure it’s turned all the way on, first. Through the rest of this blog, I hope to outline the benefits of heat exposure. Whether you’re trying to increase your life span, boost your mitochondria, or trying to build muscle, it’s time to get your sweat on!  

What Doesn’t Kill You

What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. This is the basic concept of “hormesis”. Where small stressors help build your resiliency and make you a more robust human. Which is the essence of longevity. To live long, you must build a high level of resiliency to stress. This holds true, especially for heat and sauna use. 

A landmark study followed 2,300 men in Finland. They measured “all-cause mortality” and sauna use for over 20 years. What they found is that frequent sauna bathing dramatically reduced risk of death, for any reason! What’s more, is they found a “dose dependent” response. This is a fancy way of saying the more sauna participants used, the longer they were expected to live. 

In terms of frequency, Men who used the sauna two to three times per week saw a 24% reduction in risk of death. While the more frequent sauna users (four to seven times per week), saw as much as a 40% reduction is risk of death! 

In terms of duration, Men who used the sauna for 19 minutes or more, compared to those who used the sauna for 11 minutes or less, experienced a 52% reduction in risk of death. 

While this was an observational study, it was a huge sample size over a tremendous amount of time, and elegantly demonstrates the longevity boosting effects of sauna bathing. 

It is theorized that many of the lifespan promoting benefits of sauna bathing come from boosts in heart and circulatory health. About 10 minutes into a sauna session, and my heart rate starts to pick up, substantially. You can think of this like a passive cardiovascular workout. As far as your heart is concerned, spending time in the sauna is a whole lot like spending time running. One study showed sauna bathing for 3 weeks, on top of endurance training, improved running speed, VO2 max, and time until fatigue better than endurance training alone!    

If you’re interested in living a long time, with a happy healthy heart, all while improving your exercise performance, then it’s time to get your sweat on! 

It’s Not You, It’s Me: Mitochondrial Uncoupling

The mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. And they’re breaking up with their girlfriends. That’s what I thought when I first heard about mitochondrial uncoupling (I can hear Dr. Mark Carrier, my biology professor, sighing from here). But as it turns out, mitochondrial uncoupling is a fascinating and clever trick that might help you live longer and healthier. And you guessed it, the sauna helps you do more of it! 

Mitochondria are tiny little energy makers that look a little like mini bacteria which live inside the cells of your body. They showed up a few billion years ago, and the cool thing about mitochondria is they’re great at using oxygen to make energy. If you have lots of healthy and productive mitochondria, you’re probably feeling healthy and energetic. But as we age, we tend to have more oxidative stress, resulting in fewer and weaker mitochondria. In fact, one of the main theories of why we age is due to increasing oxidative stress leading to declines in number and function of mitochondria. 

When uncoupling was discovered, they thought the mitochondria was broken. It looked like the mitochondria was working, but not producing energy. As it turned out, if the cells are running too hot, the uncoupling protein basically disconnects the ATP synthase enzyme from the electron transport chain. This helps prevent oxidative damage from working at too high a capacity. You can think of this like the safety release valve on a pressure cooker that’s gotten too hot.  

Releasing the pressure valve on these mitochondria makes them much less energy-efficient. Which may not sound good, but this burns more calories and signals for your body to make more mitochondria! So, if burning more calories, and having more mitochondria sounds good to you, then it’s time to uncouple those mitochondria! 

Easy ways to do just this include exercise, being in a state of Ketosis, consumption of MCT oil, acetic acid (vinegar), polyphenols found in colorful fruits and vegetables, sunshine, red light therapy, cold exposure and you guessed it, sauna! So, it’s time to get your sweat on, and uncouple those mitochondria! 

Get big muscles from a sauna?

So, you want to build some big muscles. How very ‘cash money’ of you. And I support you 100%. And while there is no replacement for resistance training and intelligent nutrition, sauna has been shown to boost muscle building too! Stick around to find out what heat shock proteins are, and how the sauna can help develop your best body, inside and out!  

What’s a Protein Anyway?   

What do the clothes in my closet and old proteins have in common? Bad folding. That’s a mid-tier joke that should make more sense in a few paragraphs. First things first. What the heck is a protein? Proteins are basically the tiny machines that help run just about everything in your body. From contracting your muscles to sending messages, enzymes and even antibodies are all made of proteins. Proteins are basically long chains of building block molecules called amino acids. These chains are super long, hundreds or even thousands of amino acids long. So long, in fact, that they would never fit through the tiny doorways of your cell walls. Fortunately, your body is very clever and can fold long chains of protein into manageable sizes. If the protein folds are tight and neat, the protein will work the way it was designed. But if the protein were to become damaged by something like oxidative stress, it might become misfolded. These misfolded proteins become a real problem, performing their jobs incorrectly and cluttering space inside the cell.   

Shocking News About Protein! 

Enter heat shock Proteins. These are specialized little proteins your cells produce any time your body is under stress from being hot. For example, when you’re getting your sweat on in the sauna! Interestingly, heat shock proteins are also produced when you’re exposed to cold, and pretty much any other time your system is under significant stress. You might wonder, “why not call it stress shock proteins?” but the name “Heat Shock” sounds kind of like a ‘finishing move’ in Mortal Kombat, and all the scientists thought that was rad, and decided to keep the name. 

All you really need to know about heat shock proteins is that good stuff happens when they’re activated. It signals to re-fold the misfolded proteins in your body! Potentially helping repair cellular damage due to things like oxidative stress, mutation, cellular aging, and ionizing radiation. Heat shock proteins can be so helpful to cleaning up misfolds that hyperthermia therapy is sometimes used as an adjunct anti-cancer treatment.   

Heat shock protein, activate! I feel stronger already, just saying it. But there is in fact good evidence that heat shock proteins turn on mTOR (the ‘on switch’ for muscle gains, and muscle protein synthesis). In both animal and human studies, those subjected to heat stress gained more muscle mass, showed greater improvements in strength, and even experienced improvements in mineral bone density. This is true whether sauna users trained at high intensity, low intensity or, didn’t train at all! Heat alone can help stave off atrophy after surgery and help reduce sarcopenia (age related muscle loss). No matter your training level, fitness goals or current ability, the sauna can likely give you a push towards muscle building!  

If you’re interested in building the maximum amount of muscle, there is no replacement for progressive overload. But if you’re looking to recover better and maximize the effectiveness of work you’re already doing, it would be foolish not to take advantage of the power of heat. So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to get your sweat on! 

It is rare that a bio hack is meaningfully beneficial across so many categories. That’s why sauna, especially infrared, goes in my “all-time greatest hits” for health. From cardiovascular longevity gains to growing mitochondria, all the way to muscle and bone density gains. Time in the sauna, is time well spent. That’s why I say, it’s time to get your sweat on! 

Thanks for reading!

I hope you found this information helpful, let us know what you think about the sauna, and if you would be interested in a sauna available at this clinic,! Please remember, this article is not meant to diagnose or treat any medical conditions, please consult your doctor before starting a sauna regimen. Always start a sauna practice slowly, and progress as your body acclimates! Always remember to re-hydrate with lots of water, to replace water lost through sweat, and consider an electrolyte supplement to keep your mineral levels topped off!  

Written by Dr. Aaron Barnard, DPT Physical Therapist