The benefits to using a far infrared sauna are manifold. When used in conjunction with a strength training program, the far infrared sauna has been shown to have a synergistic effect on performance and recovery.
- Sauna use increases blood flow to the muscles, improving glucose, oxygen, and nutrient delivery to muscle tissues. This reduces the body’s dependence on local glycogen stores (glucose energy reserves stored in muscle tissue), and translates into increased levels of athletic endurance.
- Sauna use increases blood flow to the heart, reducing cardiovascular strain during periods of increased exertion.
- Sauna use upregulates the sympathetic nervous system’s ability to initiate sweating, allowing sweating to begin at lower temperatures, and maintained for longer periods of time. This is key for performance because overheating can often be a limiting factor for athletes and trainees, and efficient sweating allows the body to more effectively maintain a lower core body temperature.
For muscle growth / recovery
- Heat stress from sauna use activates heat shock proteins (HSPs). HSPs prevent protein degradation by repairing damaged proteins, scavenging cellular free radicals, and increasing the expression of endogenous antioxidants. These processes help mitigate protein loss, which allows for an overall net increase in protein synthesis.
- Sauna use increases growth hormone levels, which promotes connective tissue healing and decreases protein degradation.
- Sauna use improves insulin sensitivity, improving nutrient uptake by muscle cells and enhancing growth conditions.
For performance, muscle growth, and recovery benefits, the optimal (and likely most convenient) time to use the sauna is following a workout. One should be aware however, that immediately following a post workout sauna session with an acute cold stress like a cold shower, may mitigate some of the beneficial post exercise inflammatory growth effects. Consequently, one would be advised to wait an hour before engaging in any cold stress / cryotherapy.
Performance and recovery is just one of the many areas of total health that far infrared sauna use has been shown to promote. Regular sauna use also boasts dramatic improvements in the areas of cognitive health, detoxification, and longevity.
For cognitive health
- Heat stress causes a profound increase in both Norepinephrine and Prolactin. Norepinephrine is key for focus and attention, and sauna use has been shown to improve the body’s ability to store Norepinephrine for later use. Prolactin is a hormone involved in nerve cell growth and repair. It promotes the process of myelination which improves electrical efficiency in the brain.
- Sauna use increases the release of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). BDNF has been shown to promote the growth of new brain cells, protect existing brain cells, help improve learning and memory, and reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
- Sauna use increases the expression of the dysphoric opioid dynorphin. This re- sensitizes the brain to the euphoric beta-endorphin opioids, which are responsible for the euphoric post exercise sensations like the “runners high”.
For longevity / detoxification
- The heat shock proteins (HSPs) activated through sauna use repair proteins and reduce oxidative damage associated with aging. HSPs also prevent protein aggregation, a symptom involving damaged proteins, which is found in abundance in patients with cardiac and neurodegenerative diseases (congestive heart failure, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s etc).
- Sauna use increases the expression of FOXO3, a gene strongly associated with longevity. FOXO3 is a master regulator of many longevity genes involved in DNA repair, cell repair, and cell damage prevention. FOXO3 increases antioxidant expression, immune function, metabolism, stem cell function, and autophagy (recycling / eating of damaged cells).
- Regular sauna use has been shown to improve blood pressure via the release of nitric oxide, and to improve blood lipid profiles.
- Lastly, saunas are among the most potent tools available for detoxification. We are exposed daily to toxic contaminants from our environment. Modern plastics, chemicals, pollution, pesticides and heavy metals accumulate in the body in forms and amounts that far exceed the evolutionarily developed capabilities of our natural detoxification pathways. Far infrared saunas in particular have been shown to be many times more effective at heavy metal (lead, mercury, cadmium) and mold detoxification then traditional saunas. These toxins can disrupt hormones and overburden the immune system contributing to many unusual health complications.
Clearly the far infrared sauna is much more than a device for relaxation and recreation, more even than a compliment to improved results and performance in the gym. Like exercise, the sauna is an example of hormetic stressor with a host of benefits that extend to nearly all areas of health. This example once again reminds us that health does not necessarily express itself as a “sentence” one is condemned to serve, or as providential favor one is graced with at birth, but as an active, empowered process readily available to all who seek it.