“If a sauna, whiskey and tar do not help, the disease is fatal.” – Finnish Proverb
Google ‘sauna research’ and right away, you can see studies which have been done that have found that those who use saunas regularly live longer. More accurately, the more frequently you use the sauna, the longer you are in the sauna, and the statistically less likely you are to die from cardiovascular issues, coronary disease, and heart attack. Actually, the first four results are citing the same study done on over 2,000 Finnish men. So, it is a strong enough sample size to see the associations. So, why does it work?
Well, they have gone deeper with the research and have done more than just summative studies, like the Finnish one, to have learned a few things about what happens at the molecular levels when it comes to DNA and cellular function.
Heat stress, and to a lesser degree, exercise, triggers the activation of several genes, which are responsible for the production of what they call “heat shock proteins.” The heat shock proteins go around and help keep proteins from mis-folding and forming aggregates, which are pro- inflammatory agents that can spread and affect other cells, creating a very unhealthy chain reaction. The sauna also seems to trigger a well-known longevity gene, FOX03. FOX03 operates as the master regulator, turning on a host of stress-resistance, anti-oxidant genes responsible for a host of protections against cellular stresses and triggering DNA repair. FOX03 is something that seems to become less active as we age. They also know that people who have a polymorphism that produces more of FOX03 have a 2.7-times greater chance of making the century mark. And in mice, those that had the capacity to express more FOX03 lived 30% longer. So, having more of this in your body, or more activated, is clearly not a bad thing.
Heat shock proteins work in a similar way; once activated, they go around repairing protein damage within the cell. For proteins, it is vital that they maintain their 3D shapes in order to function properly. Of course, the stress of life causes damage to proteins. What is great about heat shock proteins, which are induced by sauna use, is that they help keep other proteins from mis-folding and forming, and as Dr. Rhonda Patrick states, aggregates.
So, that’s the P.E. teacher version of the science as to why it seems to work so well. I will warn you: the saunas were hot! Pushing 79 degrees Celsius (or 174 Fahrenheit), they also found the best results came when usage lasted longer than 20 minutes. They also found that the more frequently it was used in a week, the greater the results statistically. That being said, once a week is better than not at all, and if you are older and retired, you might have greater freedom to enjoy these at a local club. If you happen to own a sauna, great! Ultimately, I think the results and discoveries of the studies are great, and I would encourage this, especially from a relaxation stand point. I will also say that it is not the end of the world if you don’t get to the sauna, and also be very careful of overdoing a session. You might want to do a little additional research of your own as well so that you are not risking the dangers of overheating and heat stroke. But knowing the benefits are so good–I really like the idea of making this part of a weekly routine. I think you will, too.