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The literature is clear: saunas are good for you. They can help treat stress, cardiovascular problems, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, and many other ailments. They may even spur muscle growth and aid in exercise recovery.

Less clear to some is how saunas can address such a variety of ills. There’s growing evidence to suggest one key characteristic is at play here:

As far as your body is concerned, time spent in a sauna is similar to time spent exercising. For lack of a better term, it’s “exercise-ish.”

The exercise-like effects of saunas

Medical researchers in Finland — home to the sauna — found that saunas accomplish two things:

  • They reduce blood pressure. Having lower blood pressure means the heart pumps more blood with less effort, decreasing force applied to your arteries.
  • They increase vascular compliance. An important function of large arteries and veins is the ability of a blood vessel wall to expand and contract passively with changes in pressure. That ability is referred to as vascular compliance.

Exercising also reduces your blood pressure and increases vascular compliance. Other exercise side effects include increases in heart rate, acute metabolic rate, and oxygen consumption.

Saunas, it turns out, elicit similar effects.

When sweating isn’t enough

Here’s one possible explanation for these exercise-sauna similarities:

The temperature inside a sauna room can reach 180-195° Fahrenheit. That’s hotter than the human body can manage through sweat alone. So, as your body heat increases, several changes occur.

  • Your heart rate, endocrine system, and beta-endorphins increase.
  • Your immune system is stimulated to the point of white blood cell, lymphocyte, neutrophil, and basophil count increases.

In a report on WebMD.com, cardiologist Dr. Joshua Liberman said the heat-heart health connection makes sense. "We know that the application of heat, locally, causes blood vessels to relax and blood flow to increase," he said. It’s the same thing done to treat sore muscles: apply heat. Could the short-term effects identified by the Finnish researchers explain the lower heart disease risks among sauna users? It’s plausible, Liberman said: "It makes sense that, over time, these physiological effects would be beneficial."

Saunas and endorphins

Another similarity between saunas and exercise is the release of endorphins into our bodies.

A sauna is a quiet, warm environment that invites the stress literally to drip off of you. This atmosphere of relaxation might be the trigger for the endorphin release. Endorphins are released during exercise because they have painkiller properties similar to morphine, which helps minimize any discomfort from the exertion such as aches, pains, and muscle soreness.

Saunas and the brain

Sauna bathing can also reduce anxiety by suppressing neurotransmitters responsible for causing nervousness. What’s more, it benefits your brain health in a number of ways, including:

  • Improving attention and focus by increasing the storage and release of norepinephrine
  • Increasing the speed with which your brain functions by producing prolactin, which enhances myelination and helps repair damaged neurons
  • Spurring the growth of new brain cells for improved learning and retention by increasing the protein known as BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor

Saunas and muscle mass

Remember as kids when you’d challenge one another to “make a muscle?” It turns out access to a sauna would have really helped you out.

Just as your net income is the most important figure in your budget, your body’s net protein synthesis — the difference between new protein synthesis and existing proteins that are degrading — is a very important part of muscular development.

Remember when we looked at how your body responds to sauna heat since your body temperature cannot be regulated by sweat alone? During that state of hyperthermia, the amount of your proteins that degrade is reduced. Because you’re losing fewer proteins through the degradation process, your net protein synthesis increases (due, in part, to the induction of heat shock proteins, growth hormone, and insulin sensitivity). This leads to muscle hypertrophy, which is the same thing that your body undergoes while you use your muscles.

(You’re unlikely to win any bodybuilding contests using saunas alone, though.)

Notes of caution

While saunas provide a remarkable array of benefits, don’t take them lightly. Please note:

  • As with any health-related activity, consult your health care provider before introducing sauna baths into your health regimen.
  • Saunas aren’t for everyone. Pregnant women, for example, are encouraged to exercise caution, especially in the first 12 weeks of their pregnancy.
  • Just because saunas mimic many of the effects exercising has on our bodies doesn’t mean you can substitute sauna time for weight room time. If you want those muscles to grow, you’re still going to need to stimulate them. Get back to your benching and bicep curls!

Your sauna resource in LA

SaunaBar provides a range of services to help you recover from life’s seemingly daily barrage of stress and toxicity. As our name suggests, saunas are among our services. Schedule a visit today to help reawaken your drive and energy. We’re here for you.