by Gardener

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Sauna bathing and its positive health effects are being studied more and more in recent times. Nothing surprising for some Russians and Finns, who are well aware of the health benefits. Their almost obsessive and ritual-laden use of the sauna can be traced back many generations. Some might even claim thousands of years back. No matter the history of this tradition, it seems to decrease inflammation, limit the risk of heart disease, improve muscle recovery, and reduce stress. But can one thing be good for so many problems? If so, how come?

Like meditation and good sleep, the sauna is said to be healthy and even get you in a good and calm mood. I know that might seem contrary to what you might think about sitting in a small wooden room that is heated to a hell-like 80°C (176°F) or more. Surely, that is nothing like sleep or meditation, and most people might even doubt that 20 minutes in that heat is healthy for anyone. Despite some beliefs, researchers have found in a systematic review of 40 papers, involving 3855 people, that the use of the sauna is healthy [1]. And apparently healthy it is in many ways.

“Chronic diseases such as cardiovascular, arthritis, and diabetes can according to research be linked to chronic inflammation.”

For the sake of simplicity, I can just list the positive health effects and refer to any relevant studies and research papers. Easy peezee, skeptics disproved, time for the choir to swallow the pill. But perhaps, that would take the mystery out of it, and it would not really answer the questions above.

I have decided to lay out a track of crumbs, a chain of thoughts linking sauna to health benefits, and its possible effects on inflammation. With nothing less than, also referring to scientific studies, to please those hungry for deeper knowledge.

Heat as a form of therapy

Heat or light-based therapies, such as you might get at a physiotherapist. Are believed to reduce inflammation. That is to say, if you are ready to trust the word of “healed” people and the therapist.

There are even some scientific papers that could hint at that. The heat or light used in those physiotherapy sessions is of a similar kind that has shown to reduce inflammation [2] [3] [4]. Even if more specific research has to be done. There is a cause for assuming that there is a relation between heat or light-based therapies and the anti-inflammatory results.

So, can it also be believed that heat exposure in a sauna will reduce inflammation? The difference is that in the case of the sauna, your whole body is bathing in the heat. While, in contrast to that, the physiotherapist is only treating a part of your body. Like an elbow or calf muscle.

Would it also be safe to state that the sauna could work more effectively as an anti-inflammatory heat treatment than localized infrared therapy? As more of the body is exposed to heat? Or, can the effects of the heat on body parts that have no inflammation be negative? I’m basing this loosely on what was mentioned in a previous article about inflammation being good and bad. Then questions like that are not uncalled for. More so, I believe that looking at it from these perspectives will make it easier to see the connection between heat, the sauna, and its possible effects on inflammation.

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In The Light Of Chronic Inflammation

A type of inflammation that is treated with localized heat or light-therapy, is chronic inflammation in a joint or muscle. Chronic inflammation, in this case, is a way the cells in an inflamed joint or muscle deal with an injury or if it has been overworked. You might have experienced this in the form of muscle soreness from overtraining or perhaps as a “tennis-elbow”.

In a similar way, but from causes such as foreign chemicals or the body`s own overproduction of other substances. Cells in the body can react and create chronic inflammation. Moreso, chronic inflammation, is according to research, linked to chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, and diabetes. So, in the case of cells in blood and veins, chronic inflammation would increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases. In the same fashion, other cells and other parts of the body can react and create chronic diseases.

Before we move on, I would shortly like to mention here that I have intentionally not referred to any studies linking chronic inflammation to chronic diseases. Instead, I would like you to navigate, through your web browser, to a scientific or medical database like PubMed and search for the words “chronic” “inflammation” “diseases”. Most people would probably be convinced by the number of papers on the subject that there is a clear link between the two. Not convinced? Then, if you feel inclined to do some more reading about the subject, then please head on to the summarizing, article Inflammation: A unifying theory of disease, that is found on the official website of The Harvard Medical school.

Some Crumbs Lead To The Sauna

Infographic saying: It Has Been Shown That Sauna Can Be Used As A Form Of Anti-Inflammatory Heat Therapy. reducing the  Inflammatory CRP.  increasing anti-Inflammatory IL-10.

Now, moving on. From those two descriptions of chronic inflammation above and just by seeing sauna and localized heat therapy as being therapies that affect the cells in a similar way. I can then assume that heat exposure in a sauna will reduce inflammation.

My assumption is backed by two studies. First, by a 2018 study published in the BioMed Research International  journal [7]. The authors of that study concluded that the human body produces more of an anti-inflammatory substance, called IL-10, in relation to sauna use. Which easily put, would stick sauna in the anti-inflammatory category of heat therapies. Secondly, the sauna can then also be viewed as an anti-inflammatory heat therapy, because it leads to the production of IL-10. Just like was to be found, to be the case in a study of localized LED-light therapy [3].

As for the concern of whether or not sauna could work more effectively as an anti-inflammatory heat treatment than localized infrared therapy? As more of the body is exposed to heat. I believe, based on the study “Sauna bathing and systemic inflammation”, that the sauna in some regards is more effective as an anti-inflammatory heat treatment for the body in general and for localized inflammation as well. 

To clarify things, I’m further basing this off on the findings in another research paper, which included more than 2000 men being studied. It was found, that the chemical substance CRP, which is part of the inflammatory chain of events in the human body, is lowered more if a person uses the sauna more often [5]. 

The Inflammation Flipside Of Sauna

All things good and rosy hu? However, as I mentioned before, could there be a negative backside to this coin? Can the effects of the heat on body parts that have no inflammation have downright negative effects instead? Specifically, can the non-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory effects of sauna use be harmful to parts of the body not suffering from inflammation?

In this regard, from the studies that I have read, I could not find a definite answer to that question. But, only looking at it from a point of view of sauna being a heat therapy with non-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory effects. Then I would say it is not harmful to parts of the body that are not suffering from inflammation.

On the other hand, obviously, that is not the full picture. To give a more definite answer, I would have to find out for once, how much inflammation sauna is causing, and if that kind of inflammation is harmful.

Can one thing be good for so many problems?

If the last paragraph might have come across a bit disheartening? Then I would only take it as it being my search for wanting to get a full picture of a subject. Of course, in light of all other scientific findings related to the positive health effects of sauna use, I would recommend the sauna. The share amount of science-backed claims and people’s personal stories in itself can be a great guideline. 

Finally, as questioned in the beginning. How come the sauna has so many health benefits? My answer to that would be that it completely envelopes your body, affecting many different tissues and systems at the same time, leading to many overlapping effects, that are more positive than negative in the sum of things.

If you would like to dive deeper into the subject of the sauna and its health benefits, we invite you to read the article Reasons Why Sauna Is Good For You by Deep Tuesdays. The following is an excerpt from that article.

“Nothing is more invigorating than healthy and deep sweating. The process of releasing toxins while you sit and relax in an enclosed heated room is a plus.”

Deep Tuesdays

Read the full article via Reasons Why Sauna Is Good For You

Cover Photo by Maxim Tajer via Unsplash

[1] – Hussain, J., & Cohen, M. (2018). Clinical Effects of Regular Dry Sauna Bathing: A Systematic Review. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2018, 1857413.

[2] – Hamblin M. R. (2017). Mechanisms and applications of the anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation. AIMS biophysics, 4(3), 337–361.

[3] – Martins DF, Turnes BL, Cidral-Filho FJ, et al. Light-emitting diode therapy reduces persistent inflammatory pain: Role of interleukin 10 and antioxidant enzymes. Neuroscience. 2016;324:485–495.

[4]  – Macedo AB, Moraes LH, Mizobuti DS, et al. Low-level laser therapy (LLLT) in dystrophin-deficient muscle cells: effects on regeneration capacity, inflammation response and oxidative stress. PLoS One. 2015;10:e0128567.

[5] – Laukkanen, Jari A., and Tanjaniina Laukkanen. Sauna bathing and systemic inflammation European Journal of Epidemiology 33, no. 3 (December 2017): 351–53. doi:10.1007/s10654-017-0335-y.

[6] – Kunutsor SK, Laukkanen T, Laukkanen J. Longitudinal associations of sauna bathing with inflammation and oxidative stress: the KIHD prospective cohort study. Ann Med. 2018 doi: 10.1080/07853890.2018.1489143.

[7] – Żychowska, Małgorzata, Alicja Nowak-Zaleska, Grzegorz Chruściński, Ryszard Zaleski, Jan Mieszkowski, Bartłomiej Niespodziński, Roman Tymański, and Andrzej Kochanowicz. Association of High Cardiovascular Fitness and the Rate of Adaptation to Heat Stress BioMed Research International 2018 (2018): 1–6. doi:10.1155/2018/1685368.