Heated sauna room

How to Maximize the Health Benefits of Sauna Usage

July 07, 2024 | Source: Mercola.com | by Dr. Joseph Mercola

I’m passionate about infrared light therapy, including sauna usage, as it has many biological benefits that can radically improve your health. I recently spoke with Dr. Jenna Greenfield, medical director at High Tech Health, which is the longest running infrared sauna company in the U.S.

“Research shows that sauna has a lot of the same mental health benefits as exercise, which is pretty incredible … heating your muscles is where a lot of the benefits of exercise come from. And you get a lot of that with the sauna,” she says. “There’s incredible cardiovascular benefits … frequent sauna users are shown to have a lower risk of heart disease.”

This is just the beginning, however, and while most research to date involves conventional saunas, not infrared, the concept remains the same. “Most of the health benefits you’re getting are from raising your body temperature and the temperature of your muscles,” Greenfield explains. “When you’re acclimated to heat, you have better endurance, better sports performance.”1

Activating Your Heat Shock Proteins Is Key

Heat shock proteins (HSPs) are a group of proteins produced by your cells in response to stressful conditions, such as the elevated temperatures in a sauna. As for what temperature you’re aiming for, there’s not one absolute answer. Some studies suggest it’s peak temperature that matters while others suggest the rate of the temperature rise is key. Among studies that did look at a temperature to shoot for, Greenfield cited one that found 101 degrees F for 20 minutes is ideal.

Ultimately, however, what you’re seeking to do is activate HSPs, which play an important role in protecting your cells from damage by helping to maintain proper protein folding and function. If you don’t have enough cellular energy, proteins can be made incorrectly. Some estimates suggest one-third of proteins are misfolded from the moment they’re made.

Protein folding is crucial because it determines the three-dimensional shape of a protein, which directly impacts its function. Proper folding ensures that proteins can perform their specific biological roles effectively, while misfolding can lead to a variety of diseases and cellular dysfunctions.

The specific shape of a protein allows it to interact with other molecules in a precise manner, much like a key fits into a lock. This is essential for enzymes, which catalyze biochemical reactions, and for structural proteins, which provide support and shape to cells and tissues. If a protein is bent or twisted in the wrong way, it won’t work right, but using a sauna can help refold those proteins. This is where HSPs come in.

“They’re the quality control for all the other proteins. So, their job is to find, look out for damage. And when a protein gets damaged, they either repair it, or they bring it to the phagosomes to get rid of it. So, they’re housekeepers,” Greenfield says.2

Why I Now Recommend Far Infrared Saunas

I previously believed that near infrared saunas were superior based on the belief that near infrared light penetrates deeply into tissues, making it superior for detoxification and physical healing and you can get mitochondrial benefits from photobiomodulation (PBM). The Sauna by High Tech Health is my top choice for its superior quality, and for a limited time Mercola subscribers can enjoy exclusive pricing on it. Click below to learn more.

Far-infrared light penetration into your body is limited due to absorption by water molecules in your body, while near-infrared light penetrates water and goes deeper into your tissue. While valuable for photobiomodulation therapy, when you are using a heat lamp to generate near IR it’s nearly biologically impossible to get close enough to the bulb to get a therapeutic dose for photobiomodulation.

Near IR Sauna Benefits and Drawbacks

Despite not providing photobiomodulation benefits, near IR saunas are still effective for detoxification:

Pros:

  • Safe with virtually no EMF
  • Effective for detoxification

Cons:

  • Typically more expensive
  • Less aesthetically pleasing than far IR saunas
  • Can be cramped for taller individuals
  • Risk of burns due to very hot bulbs

The Problem With Incandescent Heat Lamp Bulbs in Saunas

In a sauna setting with incandescent bulbs the bulbs emit mid and far IR, producing significant heat. This heat prevents you from getting close enough to receive a therapeutic dose of near IR. A therapeutic dose of near IR is around 10-100 milliwatts/cm2, which is not achievable in this setup.

So, while near IR saunas can be effective for detoxification, they do not provide the photobiomodulation benefits often attributed to them. The choice between near and far IR saunas should be based on individual needs and preferences, considering factors like cost, design, and specific health goals.

The Ideal Temperature for Sauna Use

One way to gauge whether you’re getting the proper therapeutic dose from your sauna is with temperature. Some studies recommend 110 degrees F, but most people can probably safely go to 110 degrees F. The downside is that at lower temperatures you will need to be in the sauna much longer. For example, at 120 degrees you likely need to be in for an hour to get the same benefits you would get at 140-150.

“Most people use them around 130,” Greenfield says. “All of the studies on the benefits with the far infrared are between the low 120s and 140. I have been using the sauna for more than a decade so I am acclimated to the heat. If you are new to sauna it is best to start at 120, use it three times a week and go up by two degrees a week.

We usually recommend … very conservative [protocol], just in case, you know, for anyone that’s dealing with a really heavy, toxic burden or is really sick. Most healthy young people don’t need to start that slowly. We say to start out and just increase very slowly.”

As a veteran sauna user, I like to use temperatures in the far IR sauna between 160 and 170 degrees F. However, you don’t need to go that high — and should certainly not start out that high. A general starting point is 110 degrees F, then increase the temperature gradually, two degrees a week, or about eight to 10 degrees a month.

My experience with the High Tech Health sauna over the past two months has been generally positive. I appreciate that is a very low EMF sauna and it’s not directional like the Sauna Space, allowing you to heat up simply by being in the enclosure. However, I’ve noticed a discrepancy in temperature readings that’s worth addressing but it may be related to the wiring in my home.  It is a non-issue though as the company is beyond fantastic and will swap out the heaters in the sauna for more powerful ones to accommodate for the difference.

There are multiple benefits that come with this heat acclimation. For instance, research published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports explains:3

“[H]eat acclimation induces physiological adaptations that improve thermoregulation, attenuate physiological strain, reduce the risk of serious heat illness, and improve aerobic performance in warm-hot environments and potentially in temperate environments.

The adaptations include improved sweating, improved skin blood flow, lowered body temperatures, reduced cardiovascular strain, improved fluid balance, altered metabolism, and enhanced cellular protection.”

Sweating in a Sauna Helps Your Body Remove Toxins

One of the reasons why regular sauna usage is so beneficial is because of the stream of toxins we’re exposed to 24/7. Microplastics, for instance, are pervasive. These xenoestrogens can mimic the effects of estrogen in the body.4 Much of their danger is related to their stimulation of estrogen receptors. Phthalates, for instance, have estrogenic properties, and some endocrine-disrupting chemicals are also considered estrogenic carcinogens.

Xenoestrogens increase intracellular calcium. And when that happens, they increase superoxide and nitric oxide and it forms peroxynitrite, which is a very pernicious toxin that creates oxidative stress that damages DNA, proteins and cell membranes — and destroys mitochondria function.

When you use a sauna, it helps you to detoxify via your sweat. The key is you have to sweat, and you can measure how much you’re sweating to ensure you’re getting a therapeutic effect. You can’t measure the sweat, since it evaporates. But you can weigh yourself naked before you go into the sauna and again when you come out to find out how much sweat you’ve lost.

Greenfield states that a fully heat acclimated person can sweat up to a liter every half hour, but I’ve sweat closer to two liters. This sweat is full of toxins, which is one reason why it’s ideal to have your own sauna in your home, as opposed to using a public sauna at a gym. Not only can you not control the temperature in a public sauna, but you’re sitting in a space where someone else was excreting toxins. So, it’s a hygiene problem.

Look for a Sauna That Emits Low or No EMFs

Most infrared saunas emit dangerous non-native electromagnetic fields (EMFs). So, look for one that emits low or no non-native EMFs. Even some saunas that claim to be low- or no-EMF can be problematic. I’ve measured some of these low-EMF saunas, and while there were no magnetic fields (the “M” in EMF), they emitted high amounts of electric fields (the “E” in EMF).

The problem is electrical fields are very difficult to measure without an expensive meter and proper training, and are another source of massive confusion, even within the Building Biology committee, a group of public and working professionals dedicated to creating safe havens in a toxic, electromagnetic world. One reason why I’m a fan of High Tech Health’s saunas is because they’re truly EMF-free.

How Often Should You Use a Sauna?

Sauna use can be beneficial, but it’s important to strike the right balance. While some people enjoy daily sauna sessions, experts suggest that there’s no additional benefit to using a sauna more than once a day. In fact, excessive use might even be counterproductive, especially at higher temperatures.

Frequency Guidelines:

  1. For beginners: Daily use for 10-11 days to acclimate.
  2. For regular users: Once every 3 days for maintenance or every other day.

Key Points:

  • Listen to your body and adjust usage accordingly.
  • Higher temperatures necessitate less frequent sessions.
  • Gradually increase session temperature as you become more accustomed to sauna use at about 2 degrees per week.

Sauna Use Is an Adjunct to a Healthy Lifestyle

It’s important to remember that saunas are not magic bullets. They’re a more advanced health technique that have remarkable benefits, but you’ve got to get the basics down as well. First, focus on proper nutrition, daily movement, such as walking in the sun, and optimizing your vitamin D levels.

However, once you’ve got these fundamental health components down, I would encourage virtually everyone to consider a High Tech Health sauna. Personally, I’m in love with saunas, and I will be using one the rest of my life. Greenfield expands on the many health benefits:

“When you’re acclimated to the heat, it comes with some physiologic changes. You have a lower core body temperature at rest, you have a lower heart rate, you have an increased plasma volume.

So, a lot of the same things that you get from exercise … being heat acclimated comes with so many health benefits. In that state, you can have up to a four times normal level of heat shock proteins … all of your tissues are more resistant to damage and better able to repair themselves.”

Sources and References