Healthypedia
Anna Scheucher

The Cognitive Health Benefits of the Sauna: How Does It Work?

How going to the sauna on a frequent basis can have a positive effect on your cognitive health.

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People have raved about saunas for many centuries, for good reason; these hot chambers offer far more than just a good sweat session. With regular use, saunas have been proven to drastically improve physical and mental health.

The best part? It is easy to reap the full benefits of the sauna yourself.

What is a sauna?

Before diving into the benefits of going to the sauna for your health, it is crucial to understand what a sauna and what types of saunas there are to choose from.

Simply put, a sauna is a small room or building designed for sweating a LOT. It sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

Jokes aside, there are two main types of saunas: traditional Finnish saunas and infrared saunas.

1. Finnish Saunas: This type of sauna is heated by a wood-burning stove and is known for its high temperature and low humidity. As the name suggests, this sauna stems from Finland and you will actually find one in a lot of private homes there!

2. Infrared Saunas: This type of sauna uses infrared heaters that will warm the body directly, rather than just heating the air around it, like a Finnish sauna. They tend to be less intense than Finnish saunas, but still provide a relaxing and therapeutic experience. You might see these in establishments such as gyms or hotels, as they are easy to use, heat up quickly, and their temperature is easily regulated.

Both of these saunas are commonplace, however the infrared sauna is becoming increasingly accessible.

So, let’s take a look at the benefits that frequent sauna visits may have for your cognitive health.

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Benefits of sauna for cognitive health

There is evidence to suggest that saunas can offer several potential benefits for cognitive health, including:

1A positive effect on protecting against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia

There is evidence from numeral studies to suggest that saunas may have a beneficial effect on protecting one from Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia. Although these are interesting results, further research is necessary to fully confirm the findings.

One study found that regular sauna sessions improved the cognitive function and mood of people with mild cognitive impairment, which is a condition that often precise the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. This is a promising finding and demonstrates a stronger connection between the sauna and cognitive health than previously assumed.

Other studies have found that the risk of developing Dementia and Alzheimer’s is 66% lower if people use the sauna 4-7 times a week as opposed to only once a week. This probably comes down to cardiovascular health and the fact that an improved cardiovascular system has positive effects on the blood flow to the brain.

Moreover, researchers such as Dr. Rhonda Patrick have been looking into the role of ‘heat shock proteins’, which are proteins activated by heat stress. In studies, the use of a sauna has shown that people were able to activate their heat shock proteins by 50% over their baseline levels.

What are heat shock proteins? Heat shock proteins help the proteins in your cells keep their three-dimensional structure. As they age, proteins usually start to lose their structure and become less organized. This, in turn, can lead to them forming aggregates, which can then turn into plaques, which can either form in the cardiovascular system or in the brain. Neither of those is good, of course, so we want to avoid that as much as possible. In the brain, this plaque is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Studies, primarily on animals, have shown that elevated levels of heat shock proteins can help to stop this process from happening.

Seems like a good reason to get sweating a few times a week, don’t you think?

2Stress reduction

Saunas can help to reduce stress by promoting relaxation and reducing tension in the muscles. Heat exposure also causes an increase in endorphins, which are natural painkillers and can enhance your mood. This unique combination of heat, relaxation and a release of endorphins can help to reduce stress levels and promote a sense of well-being.

Another study found that those using the sauna 5-15 times per month showed a significantly higher mental well-being score than those using it less frequently. So, whether it be work, or personal stressors, a trip to the sauna might be exactly what you need to relax.

3Improved sleep

Of course, since saunas reduce stress, they can also help to improve your sleep in a similar way by promoting relaxation and reducing the tension in your muscles. But that’s not all: Heat exposure can also help regulate the body’s circadian rhythm and increase the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep. This means cutting those melatonin supplements and simply visiting the sauna more often for a natural fix. Additionally, as mentioned above, the endorphin release caused by saunas can help to reduce stress levels, which will obviously increase the quality of your sleep. It’s no secret: the less stress you experience, the better you sleep. Saunas might actually be the cure for some sleepless nights!

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4Improved mood

Saunas have been shown to have a positive impact on mood and mental health. Of course, the release of endorphins will also benefit your mood! Regular sauna sessions have also been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, for example, conducted 2 studies in which patients with major depression sat in an infrared sauna. After just one treatment in the infrared sauna, patients reported a reduction of their symptoms by 50%! Since visiting the sauna has also been proven to lower levels of cortisol, people with anxiety or higher stress levels will also greatly benefit from this practice. Not only will this lighten your mood, but your hormones will be happy about it, too!

5Increased alertness

If your attention is already drifting off, listen up! Saunas can lead to improved focus and alertness, which is likely due to the relaxing and rejuvenating effects on the body and mind. You see, heat exposure can help to increase blood flow to the brain, which means that all the necessary nutrients and oxygen that your brain needs to function will be delivered. Plus, the endorphin release caused by saunas which was already discussed earlier can also improve mood and increase feelings of alertness.

6Improved brain function

For reasons already mentioned above, frequent sauna visits are linked to having a positive impact on cognitive function and memory.

This might be due to the fact that more blood flow is coming to the brain, but it may also just be a result of other mechanisms that still need to be studied in detail.

Let’s summarise

A sauna is an amazing tool for improving cognitive health. Not only will it have a positive effect on your stress levels and sleep, but it can also positively impact your mental health, mood and general brain function.

Simply put, going to the sauna is a great addition to your self-care routine and will greatly benefit your mental and physical health. Unless you have a cardiovascular condition, there are virtually no reasons why the sauna will not be incredibly helpful for your healthy lifestyle!

Hungry for knowledge? Here is more!

What else can the sauna bring to your life and how to use it for the best results? Watch the below interview with cell biologist, Dr. Rhonda Patrick, to explore the world of sauna and heat shock proteins.


Healthypedia FAQ

Generally, the sauna is safe, but if you have pre-existing conditions, such as heart disease, you should consult with your doctor before going to the sauna and might have to make adjustments, such as lying down or staying at the bottom of the sauna to avoid particularly high heats.

There is no age limit for the sauna. If you are worried, it is always advisable to talk to your doctor, first and see what they say. In general, you should always listen to your body.

According to research, the best results have been seen when people use the sauna more than 3-5 times a week for 10-20 minutes each time. However, any number of times is better than none.

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