Sauna is a traditional Finnish practice and has been a part of Finnish culture for centuries, being considered a social activity. It is also becoming increasingly popular around the fitness world, with many gyms and wellness centers offering sauna as a way to promote relaxation and improve health. The process involves sitting in a sealed wooden room, heated with a stove or heater, creating a temperature of 70-100℃. Sauna sessions typically last between ten and thirty minutes, during which the individual sweats profusely, which is said to have several health benefits. Afterward, there is usually a cooldown period, where the subject takes a cold shower or jumps into a cold pool or lake.
The health benefits of sauna are likely to result from a combination of several physiological mechanisms. Firstly, due to the high-temperature exposure during sauna, the body’s core temperature rises above normal levels, a process known as heat stress. Heat stress can lead to adaptations in the body, including increased sweating, vasodilation, and increased blood flow, hence improved tissue circulation and oxygenation. The vasodilation occurring through heat stress can cause a drop in blood pressure and a subsequent compensatory increase in the heart rate. As a result, regular sauna use may lead to improvements in cardiovascular health and function. However, people with certain heart conditions or on medication where an increase in the heart rate may not be safe should avoid it. Increased sweating is a separate mechanism by itself since it helps the body eliminate toxins, such as chemicals and heavy metals, through the skin, reduce inflammation, and also regulate body temperature (thermoregulation).
Another proposed mechanism of sauna is its potential to improve immune function. More specifically, it can stimulate the production of white blood cells and antibodies, which are important in fighting off infections and diseases. Last but not least, the heat from the sauna stimulates the release of endorphins, hormones that are natural painkillers and mood boosters. Along with the decrease in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, it can help promote relaxation and reduce stress and anxiety.
Due to the fact that saunas have been used for centuries and are also becoming increasingly popular, especially with athletes, there is a lot of research surrounding their benefits. Among the most engaging benefits pertain to cardiovascular health since sauna can potentially lower blood pressure, increase heart rate variability and overall improve cardiovascular function, hence cardiovascular fitness. Another significant benefit of sauna is related to its potential to enhance and accelerate recovery, either in terms of pain relief or tissue repair and growth. In particular, regular sauna use can provide pain relief for chronic conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and exercise-related muscle soreness, as well as promote enhanced recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage and fatigue through improved circulation, reduced inflammation, and increased production of heat shock proteins. In response to heat stress, the body produces heat shock proteins that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, protecting against exercise-induced muscle damage.
One of the most widely known benefits of sauna, and why many people are so keen on it, is its relaxation and relieving stress properties as well as the improved skin health attributed to the skin’s pore opening and removal of toxins. Conversely, one of the least ubiquitous potential benefits of sauna is its effect on metabolism. Some evidence suggests that sauna use may increase resting metabolic rate (RMR) in the short term. During a sauna session, the body temperature rises, resulting in increased heart rate, blood flow, and sweating. These physiological responses require energy, hence the increase in metabolic rate. The magnitude and the duration of this effect seem to be modest, with an average increase of 3,5% and for an average time of up to two hours. Lastly, regular sauna use may help the human body more effectively combat or recover from infections and illnesses, thanks to its potential to reduce inflammation and enhance the immune function on the whole.
Overall, sauna has been shown to have many potential benefits for both the body and mind, including improved circulation, increased sweating, decreased blood pressure, more effective combat of infections, reduced symptoms of chronic pain, accelerated recovery from exercise, and stress reduction. These benefits result from several physiological mechanisms, including heat stress, increased blood flow, increased heart rate, activation of the immune system, and reduced cortisol levels. However, the benefits of sauna use may vary depending on individual factors, such as certain diseases and medications, so it is essential to speak with a healthcare professional before beginning a new health regimen.
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