Regular Sauna Use Can Lower the Risk of Death by as Much as 40%
Heat therapy has been used for thousands of years in cultures worldwide. Ancient tribes were able to intuitively pick up on the benefits of our body's mechanism for perspiration – leveraging it for purification and well-being.
In Africa, the first saunas were built to rid the body of disease. In Scandinavian and Eastern European cultures, saunas date back thousands of years – built to relax the mind and body.
While these early saunas were primitive and rudimentary in design, the stimulating, therapeutic effects hold true and continue to be a cultural cornerstone.
And now, science has pulled back the curtain to reveal a staggering number of benefits to regular sauna use. But, for the sake of this article, we’ll cover the 7 biggest ones.
What Happens When We Step into a Sauna?
When the body is exposed to intense heat, it triggers a cascade of physiological responses.
Short, acute exposure to temperatures ranging from 113°F to 212 °F (45 °C to 100 °C) elicits mild hyperthermia (an increase in the body’s core temperature). This induces a process in which your body works to restore the balance among its systems needed to survive – also known as homeostasis.
Research shows that a robust physiological response kicks in to achieve this, conditioning the body for future stress a.k.a building stress resilience. Some of the key responses in the body include the release of:
There is now undeniable data showing that these mechanisms unlock a wealth of benefits associated with longer life, including cardiovascular, neurological and metabolic benefits.
For instance, the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study (KIPH) - one of the most prolific, ongoing cohort-based studies around sauna use - found among the 2269 middle-aged men from Eastern Finland an association between sauna use and a reduced risk of age-related health conditions. This includes cardiovascular and neurodegenerative disease, metabolic dysfunction and immunological decline.
So, how exactly does getting really, really hot a few times a week help you live longer? Let’s take a look at the science.
How Saunas Can Extend Your LifeSpan
Regular sauna use can significantly lower your risk of cardiovascular death.
Sauna triggers the same mechanisms in the brain and body that occur during cardiovascular exercise – with cardiac output increasing by as much as 70%. In order to cool down and regulate body temperature, heart rate and blood flow increase, along with vasodilation of blood vessels.
Evidence suggests that regular sauna use decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in men and women.
In the KIHD study, it was noted that the risk reduction was dose-dependent - With a 22% reduced risk in men who used it 2-3 times per week, and a 63% reduction when used 4-7 times per week.
Heat stress triggers the production of neuroprotective brain chemicals.
During a sauna session, nerve cells release neurotrophic factor proteins such as BDNF, stimulating the production of new neurons, as well as jumpstarting the production of other brain chemicals necessary for brain health.
A 2016 article published in nature.com, highlighted the connection between BDNF and Alzheimer’s – suggesting stimulation of BDNF has protective effects on the brain and is a ‘promising treatment’ against neurodegeneration. Dr. Rhonda Patrick goes into great detail on how BDNF delays brain aging by increasing neurogenesis and neuroplasticity – meaning sauna can be a promising strategy to keep your brain young and sharp.
This may, in part, explain the associations that have been found between regular sauna use and reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
The KIHD studies revealed a significantly lower risk of developing conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Men who used the sauna 4-7 times per week had a 66% lower risk of developing dementia and a 65% lower risk of Alzheimer’s when compared to men who reported using it only once per week.
Sauna can help preserve muscle mass and protect the body against age-related muscle atrophy (sarcopenia)
Human growth hormone (HGH) is a peptide responsible for cell growth and regeneration, driving the growth of muscle tissue, bone integrity, and fat oxidation. So, it’s no surprise biohackers and longevity enthusiasts salivate at the prospect of leveraging it for anti-aging.
The reality is, as we get older, maintaining and building lean muscle mass, increasing bone density, and minimizing fat storage becomes an even higher priority – as these are important health markers for long life. Low muscle mass is associated with an elevated risk of all-cause of mortality, strongly suggesting its role in improving health and lifespan.
And unfortunately, HGH starts to gradually decline in our 20s and 30s.
However, the sauna can be an excellent tool to elevate HGH. In fact, one study showed that a sauna can increase HGH by up to 16-fold. In addition, the release of heat shock proteins helps repair muscle tissue, making it a good protocol for recovery after workouts.
Heat stress triggers the release of dynorphins which play a role in the thermal regulation of body temperature. The exact opposite of endorphins, these are responsible for signalling sensations of discomfort. Interestingly, this causes the body to become more sensitive to beta-endorphins – meaning it takes less stimulation to ‘feel good’ even when not in the sauna. This suggests that the sauna may be effective in fighting depression.
BDNF has been shown to play a role in the pathophysiology of psychiatric disorders with low levels, or dysfunction, associated with depression. And many existing anti-depressants on the market boost BDNF in the hippocampus as potential means of treatment.
There are some studies that have explored how saunas can help reduce symptoms of depression. In one randomzied control trial involving 28 individuals diagnosed with mild depression, those who received 4 weeks of sauna therapy experienced an improvement in symptoms such as anxiety and appetite.
And to cite the KIHD studies once more, men who used the sauna at least 4 times per week also had a 77% reduced risk of developing psychotic disorders.
Sauna also induces hormesis – enabling the body to build back stronger.
The intense bout of heat releases heat shock proteins from our cells in response to stressful conditions. This is the process of deliberately introducing a mild stressor with the goal of creating just enough physiological damage to repair and become even stronger than previously – similar to the process of building muscle.
These play an important role in bolstering our immune function. One 2013 study demonstrated that just a single sauna session, and the subsequent release of shock proteins, increased white blood cell, lymphocyte, neutrophil, and basophil counts in both trained and non-trained athletes.
Research also suggests that specific heat shock proteins play a role in activating our existing immune system responses, such as natural killer cells.
Sauna has been shown to reduce markers of oxidate stress - a source of inflammation.
It is widely accepted that inflammation is a key driver behind chronic diseases.
The release of heat shock proteins helps elevate glutathione levels, which plays a pivotal role in many functions including reducing oxidative stress and fighting inflammation.
A study involving 2084 men aged 42-60 who participated in regular sauna bath sessions found it led to a significant reduction in C-reactive protein (a leading blood marker of systematic inflammation). With 4-7 times per week yielding the best results when compared to less frequent sessions.
Sauna boosts mitochondria synthesis – the most essential cells for longevity and energy production.
The fundamental blueprint for anyone on a quest to maximise their lifespan is to boost mitochondrial health. This is because mitochondria dysfunction is a root cause of ageing. So, by preserving the integrity of mitochondria cells, and creating new ones, it may help extend one’s lifespan.
And in one study, just 6 days of heat stress increased mitochondrial function by 28%
How Long, How Hot and How Often?
As the bulk of the evidence indicates, frequency is key. For general health (and longer life), try to get in 2-4 sessions per week. The optimal temperature should be anywhere between 80-100 ℃; 176-212 ℉.
To leverage the benefits of growth hormone release, you’ll have to resist temptation and use it infrequently - once per week or less. According to the peer-reviewed literature, you should undergo 30-minute intervals with cool-down periods in between. For instance, 30 minutes of sauna, followed by a 5-minute cooldown, then 30 more minutes, cool down again. Then repeat a few hours later in the day. That’s four 30-minute sauna sessions in one day.
What if I Don’t Have access to a Sauna?
The sauna can be something of a luxury for many people. Or simply can’t find one within their proximity.
However, the sauna is just one of many scientific levers you can pull to optimise your health and stay young, and liver longer.
For instance one of our best-selling products, Glycine, produces similar longevity-enhancing benefits. Like boosting glutathione (critical in fighting against free radicals caused by oxidate stress ); playing a key role in phase II liver detoxification; promoting deep, restful sleep for optimal cellular repair; enhancing brain function, and a lot more you can read about here.
ConclusionThe longevity benefits of sauna are strongly supported by the literature and even just two 30-minute sessions per week can yield fantastic general health benefits to increase your lifespan. If for whatever reason, you cannot access a sauna, you can harness similar benefits for longevity through protocols like hot and cold showers, fasting, exercise and specific dietary supplementation (like the longevity-based supplements we source at Centenarius Nutrition).