Hot and cold exposure therapy has hurtled in to the trendy wellness stratosphere with people like Gwyneth Paltrow, Kim Kardashian, Mark Hyman and Harry Styles all getting in on the action. Hot and cold therapy, when combined, have proven positive effects on longevity. However each practice also has a whole host of health benefits in their own right. In this article, we will focus on the sauna. Keep your eyes peeled for our other articles coming soon on Cold Water Immersion and Contrast Therapy.
Let’s start with the heat. Heat therapy has been used for thousands of years, as a cleansing and healing practice. It has taken many forms, from thermal volcanic baths in 500BC, to hot vapour baths used by the Native Americans to treat fevers and arthritis, to the Sauna which is believed to have been first built around 2000BC in Northern Europe. The first saunas weren’t quite like the ones you see at your local gym, they were caves with animal skins draped over the entrance with a fire inside under some stones. They would light the fire during the day, and once the fire had gone out and the smoke had blown away, the stones would remain warm all night, and the people would bath in the steam emitted when water was poured on to the stones.
Fast forward to today, and most saunas are electric (although you can find authentic ones that use fire). This short term exposure to extreme heat increases the body’s core temperature, a condition called mild hyperthermia. The mild hyperthermia then triggers a thermoregulatory response that involves neuroendocrine, cardiovascular, and cytoprotective (cell-protective) mechanisms that all combine to restore homeostasis and prepare the body for future heat stressers.
In recent decades, sauna bathing has emerged as a means to increase lifespan and improve overall health, based on compelling data from observational, interventional, and mechanistic studies. Including the fascinating findings from studies of participants in the Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor (KIHD) Study, an ongoing prospective population-based cohort study of health outcomes in more than 2,300 middle-aged men from eastern Finland, which identified a strong link between sauna use and reduced death and disease. Pretty compelling stuff! The KIHD findings showed that men who used the sauna two to three times per week were 27 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular-related causes than men who didn’t use the sauna. In addition, frequent sauna users were found to be 40 percent less likely to die from all causes of premature death. These findings remained even when considering age, activity levels, and lifestyle factors that might have influenced the men’s health. The KIHD also revealed that frequent sauna use reduced the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in a dose-dependent manner. Men who used the sauna four to seven times per week had a 66 percent lower risk of developing dementia and a 65 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, compared to men who used the sauna only one time per week.
So if a potential decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease sounds of interest to you, it could be worth incorporating some form of heat therapy in to your wellness routine. Don’t have access to a sauna? Not to worry, a hot bath has been shown to have similar effects to a sauna.
Read Part 2 – Cold Water Immersion in our series on Hot Cold Therapy.