The simple life hack that can change your life!
In episode 55 I talk about a simple life-hack that is relatively new to me, but I’ve felt its positive effects in just the few short months since I incorporated it into my weekly routine.
The hack I’m talking about is the regular use of the dry sauna. Maybe you’ve been hearing a bit about its beneficial effects in the news or on social media.
I first heard about the benefits of sauna use from listening to a podcast by my hero, Rhonda Patrick, PhD. If you’re a regular follower of The Essential Boomer and have been listening to my podcasts, then you should be already be familiar with Rhonda.
For those of you who don’t know her. Rhonda is a researcher who received her PhD in biomedical science and has done extensive research in the fields of cancer, aging and nutrition.
Rhonda has also done research on aging at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in Southern California. Her website, Found My Fitness, is my go-to reference for solid, up-to-date, science-based, information on extending one’s health span.
Rhonda’s videos and podcasts provide a rare peek into the cutting-edge science of aging and how to avoid the chronic conditions that are associated with it. I love her podcasts and videos. I do find them very technical and so I often need to listen to them several times to really get a handle on the meat of their concepts.
So, as I was saying, I first heard about the benefits of the sauna from listening to Rhonda’s podcast where she interviewed Dr. Jari Laukkanen, M.D., Ph.D., a cardiologist and scientist at the Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition, University of Eastern Finland. Dr. Laukkanen conducted a long-term study looking at the benefits of regular sauna use with over 2,000 middle-aged men over the course of 20 years in Finland.
I decided to do this podcast to present this important information from a higher viewpoint making it a bit easier to digest for us normal folk.
In this 20 yearlong study, they controlled for such factors as age, obesity, smoking, alcohol, cholesterol, prescription medication, and type 2 diabetes as well as socio-economic status and physical activity so it accurately isolated the effects of the sauna use.
And the findings are dramatic. The study found that death by cardio-vascular disease decreased by 27% for men who used the sauna 2 – 3 times per week as compared to men who used it only once per week. And for men who used the sauna for 4-7 times per week, death by cardio-vascular disease decreased by 50% compared to the once-a weekers.
They also found that all-cause mortality, which is death by any disease or toxic exposure, other than by accident, decreased by 24% for the men who used the sauna 2-3 times and 40% for the men who used it 4 -7 times as compared to the once-a-week sauna user.
I would have loved to have them compare these results to the men who never use the sauna. I can’t imagine how much higher the numbers would have been with that comparison.
The protections that regular sauna use provides for cardio-vascular related conditions are profound.
Long-term sauna use has been shown to improve blood pressure, endothelial function, which is the working of the inside linings of your blood vessels, which affect the stiffness of your arteries and ventricular function, which is very important to your ticker.
Long-term sauna us has also, not surprisingly, been shown to reduce the occurrence of strokes by 12% in the men who used the sauna 2-3 times per week and by a whopping 62% in the men who used the sauna 4-7 times per week, again, compared to the once-a-week group.
If you’re thinking that regular sauna use replicates the benefits of cardio-vascular exercise you’d be spot on… It does.
In fact, a 20 minute or more session in the sauna can drive your heartrate up to 150 beats per minute, which is what you’d expect from doing a fast run. Have you ever checked your heart-rate after a sprint? It will be in the same range.
Sauna use has been shown to increase cardio-vascular endurance by increasing blood flow to skeletal muscles and increasing their efficiency. It also has been shown to increase blood flow to the heart thus reducing cardio-vascular strain thus allowing for longer physical activity as compared to a non-heat acclimated person.
Long term sauna use also enables increased blood flow to the skin resulting in a lowering of the body temperature at which you start to sweat, thus enabling you to maintain a lower body temperature.
In one study, male runners who did a 30-minute sauna 2 times per week were able to increase their running to exhaustion by 32% compared to the non-heat acclimated group.
This sure sounds a lot like the effects of cardio-vascular exercise to me.
But how about resistance exercise? Can long-term sauna use replicate the benefits of weight training?
In fact, long-term sauna use has been shown to increase muscle hypertrophy, which means you are actually building muscle by sitting on your butt in a hot sauna.
Well, your muscles are constantly going through a process, kind of like your bones, where they tear down existing muscle tissue while simultaneously adding on new muscle tissue. Your body does this to maintain a balance to preserve your muscle mass.
When you do resistance exercise you are mechanically damaging your muscle tissue causing them to repair the damaged tissue while adding on more new muscle. Thus increasing your overall muscle mass.
Well, when you are exposed to heat, it causes your body to slow up on the process that tears down your muscles, while increasing the processes that causes you to grow more muscles. So, it’s like doing resistance training merely by sitting in a sauna. And this affect has been shown to last up to 48 hours after the sauna use.
This can be very beneficial for providing therapy to damaged muscles. Normally, when you damage a muscle, you have to isolate and rest the muscle to prevent more damage and inflammation, and to allow the muscle to heal. This will usually cause muscle atrophy along with the subsequent loss of muscle mass and strength.
So, with regular exposure to the heat of a sauna, you can actually prevent the loss of muscle mass while still protecting it from further damage.
I experienced this first hand. At the time I listened to Rhonda Patrick’s interview with Dr. Laukkanen, back in august of 2018, I was couch-bound after a gnarly bike crash where I had seriously damaged my calf.
It had been a couple of weeks since the crash and my calf seemed to be only getting worse with much more pain, and swelling, making it very difficult to walk, even with crutches.
I live very close to the YMCA, which has a killer sauna, so I decided to give it a try. I started going to the sauna at the Y 3 to 4 times per week and I haven’t slowed down since.
It was during this time that I started to see a real turn-around with my healing and level of pain. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t claim that the sauna was solely responsible for my accelerated improvement because it was at the time where my injury should have been showing signs of improvement. But I only started to feel better after I started my sauna routine. And it healed very quickly after that.
Now intuitively, to me, it makes sense that the sauna can be beneficial to your health because of it’s similarity to cardio-vascular exercise and the hypertrophy benefits are just icing on the cake but it turns out that all that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the health benefits derived from a sauna.
We now know that long-term, regular sauna use can also help protect your body against neurogenic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease.
One of the main drivers of these benefits is something called heat-shock proteins. Just like they sound, heat-shock proteins are activated by your genes as a response to exercise AND to extremes in temperature, both cold and hot.
Heat-shock proteins are very beneficial to your health because they work to maintain and repair the 3-dimensional shapes of your cells, which can lose their shape due to environmental stress as well as normal cell metabolism. When a cell loses it proper 3-dimensional shape, it can affect the functionality of the cell often-times leading to an increase in the accumulation of protein aggregates in the cells thus leading to an increase in inflammation.
Think of protein aggregates as bits of garbage in your cells which trigger your immune system to attack them, thus leading to an increase in inflammation, which can be the cause of some pretty nasty conditions such as cardiac disease, atherosclerosis, cardiomyopathy as well as the before mentioned neuro-degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Heat shock proteins are very important to help maintain the structural integrity, and thus the functionality of your cells.
But sometimes your cells can become so damaged that they lose all normal functionality becoming more like zombie cells in that they aren’t quite dead, yet they still produce the garbage-like protein aggregates that accumulate in your cells. These kinds of cells are called senescent cells.
As we age, we tend to accumulate more and more of these senescent cells producing more and more protein aggregates thus causing more inflammation which increases the likelihood of contracting many of the conditions associated with inflammation caused by protein aggregates.
The accumulation of senescent cells are now considered a major contributor to the entire process of aging.
The senescent cells can mutate into cancer cells. So needless to say, if you could get rid of your senescent cells and the resulting protein garbage in your cells that it would be a very good thing.
FOX03, the longevity gene to the rescue!
Research now shows that long term exposure to heat stress, as in a dry sauna, causes your body to activate the expression of an amazing gene, that they now call the longevity gene – FOX03.
FOX03 is frigging amazing. In fact, people who have a genetic disposition to create more FOX03 have a 2.7 limes increase in their chances to live to be 100.
FOX03 is the master regulator of many genes. It has been shown to make your cells more resistant to many of the stressors that come with age. It acts like a dietary anti-oxidant except way more potent.
FOX03 increases the expression of genes responsible for autophagy, which is the process of cleaning out all that garbage in your cells that is produced by those zombie senescent cells thus helping to reduce inflammation. FOXO3 also enables your body to produce proteins that will cause those senescent cells to kill themselves through a process called apoptosis. This prevents them from producing any more protein garbage as well as preventing them from mutating into a cancer cell.
And speaking of cancer. FOX03 also produces proteins that cause cancer cells to die.
And, as if that isn’t enough, FOX03 also increases the expression of genes responsible for improving your immune function, which normally declines with age.
As if these aren’t enough benefits to make you want to commit to incorporating sauna into your lifestyle… there’s more!
It turns out that regular sauna use is very good for your brain.
Studies show that regular heat exposure in a sauna causes increased neurogenesis, which is the growth of nerve tissue in your brain. This is caused by the expression of the brain derived neurotrophic factor BDNF which plays an important role in neuronal survival and growth.
Heat stress is also responsible for the increased production of the stress hormone norepinephrine, which promotes myelin growth and makes your brain function faster as well as repairing nerve cell damage to the brain.
This is all very good news for anyone with any kind of neurogenic disorder such as MS, Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury and Huntington’s disease.
And as a capper, the sauna can also help with depression. The afore mentioned neurotrophic factor BDNF has been shown to be a valuable factor in reducing depression.
Your body produces the protein dynorphin, which is responsible for the sensation of dysphoria, or discomfort that you feel when exposed to intense exercise OR spicy foods OR extreme temperatures, like those found in a sauna.
Dynorphins make you feel bad, but they trigger your body to respond by creating endorphins, your body’s natural opiate, which makes you feel good… really good. In fact, as a response to the presence of dynorphins, your body increases your level of endorphins and it can last for up to 48 hours beyond the initial exposure. And… the body’s uptick in dynorphins causes you to become more sensitive to any discomfort which causes your body to produce more endorphins as a response.
Now, that can’t be bad can it?
Just think…All of these amazing benefits are triggered by simply sitting on your rear in a hot sauna for several times each week. Now that’s a lifestyle hack I can live with.
So, the questions now are how hot does the sauna need to be and how long do I need to sit in it to get all those great health benefits?
According to Dr. Laukkanen study, you will need to sit in a sauna for at least 20 minutes at a temperature of at least 174 degrees Fahrenheit to derive all the health benefits mentioned earlier.
Now I know what you’re thinking. 174 degrees! That is way too hot for a normal human to endure. Why I can barely stand to sit in a 105 degree hot-tub. 174 degrees will kill me!
Au contraire mon frere. ..
If you’ve never been in a dry sauna before then 174 degrees sounds flaming hot but in reality, it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. It’s dry air as compared to hot water in a hot tub. The sauna at our YMCA is a steady 184 degrees and to me it’s perfect.
It did take me a bit of time to work up to 20 minutes, but I am baby when it comes to discomfort. I will often do the sauna after a 10-mile bike ride so I’m already heated up. When I do that it takes a lot less time to get a sweat going as compared to walking in it without exercising first.
I think the hardest part of doing a sauna is the residual sweating for ½ hour or more after leaving the sauna, even if I take a tepid shower. It can be a bit embarrassing. The only way to really avoid that is to take a really cold shower after the sauna to drive your temperature down. Now I’m a baby when it comes to cold showers, so I usually put up with the post sauna sweating and just avoid venturing to places inhabited by a lot of people for an hour or so.
A question that comes up a lot is whether you can get the same benefits from an infra-red sauna as you can from a dry sauna. As far as the study, it was shown that you need to get at least 174 degrees Fahrenheit to derive the most benefits and an infra-red sauna doesn’t get anywhere near that temperature. So, I suspect that you wouldn’t get as robust a response from an infra-red sauna.
People also ask a lot whether a hot tub can also provide the same health benefits and again, there are no studies to verify that claim one way or the other though I do suspect, from personal experience, that sitting in a 110 hot tub or spa for 20 minutes or more will certainly get that heartrate and sweating response up there so I’m more inclined to think that a really hot, hot tub may have similar benefits. So if I didn’t have access to a sauna, then I’d certainly consider trying to find a friend or facility with a hot tub.
I tend to think that the important factor is to heat up your body to the point where you are sweating profusely and experiencing moderate discomfort. But again, the science right now is with the dry sauna.
There are also some common-sense safety guidelines that you should follow when using a dry sauna:
1 – NEVER sauna alone. If you pass out, you could die. Enough said.
2 – NEVER use a sauna when drunk, high, or pregnant or if you have ANY medical condition that can be exacerbated by heat stress. Check with your doctor prior to incorporating regular sauna sessions into your lifestyle.
3 – If at any time you feel sick, dizzy or faint… get out immediately.
4 – 25 – 30 minutes is way enough time to derive maximum benefit for most people. Don’t get crazy.
5 – drink 2 – 4 glasses of cool water after each sauna session.
So, I hope by now that you are seriously thinking about adding the sauna to your weekly lifestyle routine IF you don’t have any pre-existing physical conditions that may prevent you from exposing yourself to that kind of heat stress.
If in doubt, I would first run it by your doctor to make sure that it’s safe for you.
CLICK HERE to go to FOUND MY FITNESS, Rhonda Patrick PhD’s amazing website.
CLICK HERE to go to Rhonda Patrick PhD’s interview with Dr. Jari Laukkanen, M.D., Ph.D.
CLICK HERE to go to ALL of the resources for sauna use on FOUND MY FITNESS.
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And…I would be remiss not to give a big thanks to my favorite blues guitar player of all time, Mr. Dave Hydie for generously providing such a great intro and outro for each of my podcasts. I love you Dave, you da man.