A sauna, by definition, comes from an ancient Finnish word for ‘bathhouse’ and describes a small room or building where dry or wet heat sessions are experienced. A sauna may also be an establishment comprised of one or more of these facilities. The room is typically heated to between 70 to 100 degrees Celsius (or 158 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit), and the relative humidity is usually between 10 to 20 percent. During a visit to the sauna, the temperature of the skin rises to about 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), which provokes heavy sweating. The heart rate accelerates as the body attempts to keep cool.
Though this may not sound like the most healthy condition, a sauna is a truly relaxing, tranquil experience.
There are several varieties of saunas out there, some with cultural roots. The main types you will often hear about include:
- Wood burning. These saunas are usually low humidity and high in temperature because wood is used to heat the room and rocks.
- Infrared room. Special lamps are used to heat a person’s body, not the entire room. Infrared saunas run around 60 degrees Celsius, which is cooler than other sauna types.
- Electrically heated. Similar to wood-burning saunas, the temperatures are high but the humidity is low.
- Steam room. Though these are not traditional saunas, the effects are closely related. Steam rooms have high humidity and moist heat.
A few examples of cultural saunas:
- Turkish bath (or hammam).
- Russian steam bath (or banya).
- Finnish sauna. The most popular type of Finnish sauna is one with dry heat. Many people have saunas in their city apartment which use electricity instead of smoke, which is still popular in other countries around Europe.
Now that you know some sauna variations, it is time to talk about the benefits of using a sauna.
Increased Hormone Production
One of the biggest benefits that athletes gain from the sauna is the elevated levels of natural growth hormone production. It was found that sauna sessions between 15-20 minutes in length, at a temperature between 80 to 100 degrees Celsius increased the level of growth hormone by 2-5 fold. This level persisted even after the sauna session was finished. The other plus is that exercise and hyperthermia have a synergistic relationship, meaning that a higher heat increases growth hormone production. So, if you increase your core temperature while working out, and then you decide to sit in the sauna for 15 minutes, you are creating substantial gains.
Improved Insulin Sensitivity
The heat from saunas promotes muscle growth by improving insulin sensitivity and lowering muscle protein catabolism. Periods where the body is hotter than average (also called hyperthermia) has been shown to reduce insulin resistance in obese diabetic mice. These mice were given hyperthermic treatment for 30 minutes, three times a week for 12 weeks. At the end of the study, the mice had a 31% decrease in insulin levels and a significant reduction in blood glucose.
Why is that important for athletes? Because insulin affects muscle growth directly, balanced levels of insulin will aid in better muscular hypertrophy over time. Another test done with rats showed that after 30 minutes in a sauna, heat-shock proteins were released, and this prompted a 30% increase in muscle regrowth when compared to a control group.
Hard workouts mean more than just DOMS. You may have a chronic issue that flares up, like arthritis or experience muscle stiffness. Infrared saunas in particular have a way of targeting the places that are inflamed or aching to aid in faster recovery.
Research done in Japan revealed that chronic pain patients who sat in an infrared sauna had nearly 70% pain reduction. Another study done by NASA showed how infrared technology penetrates tissues deeply to increase cell growth in the targeted areas.
Because of this reason, former and current Olympic athletes, like Doctor Jeffrey Spencer (1972 U.S. cycling team), are huge fans of infrared saunas.
Some of the best-known research about far infrared (FIR) saunas was from 2009. The research found that FIR saunas may help normalize blood pressure and treat congestive heart failure. Another way saunas help with improving circulation has to do with the heat. When the body warms up in a sauna, the blood vessels dilate and the heart rate increases (to almost 150 beats per minute). This increases overall circulation, which helps transport nutrients and oxygen throughout the body.
Lastly, saunas play a role in hyperthermic conditioning, or increased plasma volume and blood flow to the heart. The result is decreased cardiovascular strain during vigorous exercise.
Lowered Stress Levels
After a workout, the body is still revved. Pair that with other elements of life that stress people out, and you have a system that could be approaching adrenal fatigue. Saunas help the body switch off the “fight or flight” mode by coaxing it into a parasympathetic state, allowing for the body to de-stress, rest, and heal. Also, when stress is lowered, so is cortisol.
Saunas are nothing new to the world, but the advantages of use for athletes are just beginning to come to the forefront. By sitting in a sauna for 15 to 20 minutes a day, you do more than detox. Your body gets washed with relaxation, healing accelerates, growth hormone increases, and other hormones, like cortisol, come to a state in equilibrium.
So, what are you waiting for? Review Sunlighten’s sauna options; Your body will thank you for it.