Effect of Saunas on Healing
Recovery is the ultimate equalizer—without it—training stops, sparring stops, winning stops. Designing a recovery program and sticking to it will reward you with strength, power, and endurance when you really need it. Warrior cultures may have intuited that sauna use could add years to their lives, and that’s bona fide—using a hot sauna regularly makes people live longer. Check out Dr. Ronda Patrick’s science-heavy video here .
Any time a recovery method adds years to your life, it's important to add that approach as an ongoing habit! Traditional warrior cultures were some of the greatest sauna and bath cultures, using steaming water as part of core cultural, spiritual, and physical maintenance and recovery therapy. This practice seems to be nearly universal, and is one of the healthiest places to "sit' extensively. Warriors from the Turkic tribes to Fighting Irish, the American Indian sweat lodge to the Aboriginal Australian sweat lodge, to Finnish, Korean,
African, Japanese and many more cultures all invested considerable time and energy in using steam and heat for ritual, social, and recovery purposes.
These cultural rituals were often combined with massages, scrubbing, mud plasters, and cold dips to achieve mental and emotional clarity, along with physical therapy. Clearly, heat has been used for maintaining total body health and as a secret to recovery since humans stumbled upon that first mysteriously steaming hot spring .
“Everyone should be using the sauna!”
- Joe Rogan
Benefits of Saunas
Those warriors really knew what they were doing, too, because studies have proven that the beneficial effects of saunas just go on and on. These benefits are simply too numerous to list all at once, so they will be included throughout this article. A few highlights include the fact that especially near infrared saunas greatly improve brain health and protect from Alzheimer’s, speed injury, wound, and tissue healing and recovery, including retinal injury..
Sauna use increases growth hormones so fast that just seven sessions of 30 minutes each double it, and seven sessions of two hours increases it sixteen times.
A decrease in growth hormones basically equals decreasing muscle tissue and increasing fat tissue, typically accompanied by a decrease in energy, none of which is an option for martial artists. Another useful change involves heat shock proteins which stimulate the renewing of cells, removal of old cells and decrease tissue inflammation .
Rate increase in growth hormones after 7 - 2 hour sauna sessions
Multiple Benefits from Saunas
Some amazing bennies are coming to light around using saunas on a regular basis. Saunas measurably improve brain health, which is a powerful incentive for martial artists getting their heads pounded regularly, plus the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia have been proven much lower in those who use a sauna only several times a week. In fact, using a sauna only one time per week lowers the chance of Alzheimer’s disease by a whopping two thirds, as opposed to never using a sauna. Researcher Jari Laukkanen points out,
“It is known that cardiovascular health affects the brain as well. The sense of well-being and relaxation experienced during sauna bathing may also play a role."
The intense immersive heat of a sauna speeds up exercise by-product removal of toxins created during extreme exercise bouts when the body breaks down tissue protein for energy. This breakdown creates nitrogen which can then be released through the skin by sweating during sauna use . The heat in a sauna makes the heart rate rise just like doing medium-intensity exercise, lowers cholesterol, reduces the risk of coronary diseases and sudden cardiac death, hypertension, and dementia, reduces the risk of respiratory diseases and lowers CRP levels . Also, it turns out sauna use increases the production of white blood cells and strengthens the immune system, another major link in the recovery chain .
Saunas Stimulate the Sympathetic Nervous System
This really helps fighters ‘come down’ after events. The sauna or steam room produces a very mild sympathetic stimulus-response, allowing the athlete to relax the body and release the fight response, thus preventing burnout and minimizing sleep troubles. It helps to increase this desired response when the heat/cool cycle is utilized, which is an important part of the process.
Research shows this cycle can help with CNS recovery by decreasing the amount of time needed to return to a parasympathetic state. This is important for most combat athletes who get hyped up great but have a hard time coming down, mellowing, and relaxing after training. Saunas also help with lowering cortisol levels, which are required for optimal fight capacity, but too much for too long can be destructive to the body and may slow recovery .
Saunas Help with Muscle Recovery and Rehab
A sauna is effectively immersive heat therapy that relaxes muscle contractions and lowers inflammation following exercise. The release of tension and muscle tightening greatly lowers the risk of injury. Oxygen availability is a vital component in muscle function, important in aiding muscular recovery, and sauna use send fresh blood cells throughout the body, increasing oxygen availability. When there is a need for rehab, strength and muscle mass are slowly regained.
Loads on a muscle during rehab are typically relatively low, compared to what is normal, yet there is an increased rate of oxidation compared to uninjured muscles. 5-pound lifts during rehab sessions could create more oxidation than 50 pounds would normally create. High oxidation may slow and impede recovery rates. The high rates of oxidation may compromise recovery rates. Oxidation can damage cell membranes, using the body’s protective glutathione stores up too quickly.
Heat therapy, however, reduces oxidation while increasing muscle tissue growth. There are excellent reasons saunas are so popular among athletes who regularly engage in grueling, brutal workouts, including quickened recovery time, relaxation of nerves, muscle building, and circulatory system strengthening.
Post-Workout and Injury Recovery
Heat therapy is very beneficial immediately following an injury or surgery, and during the rehab period when strength and muscle mass are being rebuilt. Injuries result in muscle damage, a strong immune response, and tissue breakdown. Joints are typically immobilized immediately following the injury, and without movement, the muscles atrophy quickly. The loss of muscle may be noticeable in as little as a week. Saunas can help reduce the loss of muscle mass by increasing blood flow, which mimics the exercising ‘process,’ without further stressing the injury .
Heat Stress Benefits for Recovery and Performance
The use of a heat/cooling cycle with periods of extreme heat creates a stress response in the body. Depending on the heat and humidity, the core temperature starts to rise in 5-15 minutes. The body’s response to rising temperature is to reroute blood flow, increase heart rate, blood vessel dilation, and hormonal release. Sauna use increases red blood cells and available oxygen within the body. That translates into athletic endurance.
Heat also stimulates heat-shock proteins, which play a role in organizing other proteins, and are thought to play a role in the growth of muscle tissue. They also support the immune system by identifying proteins from cells that don’t belong in the body. To get the most out of recovery, keep in mind the goal of a sauna is to reach the point where the heat becomes uncomfortable but long before passing out, jump into a cold shower or pool.
Do this cycle several times over for optimal recovery and athletic performance, but never do this too close before an event or fight, as it takes energy.
Saunas Increase Athletic Adaptation to Heat
Repeated sauna sessions give the body an increased ability to cope better with heat, which is a major benefit for training, sparring, and fight performance. Training and fight events raise body temperature which can be a major factor in limiting endurance, performance, and can basically equal winning or losing. Heat training gives an advantage that allows a fighter to keep going at full power. Also, heat therapy improves insulin sensitivity, which confers numerous benefits.
Detoxification occurs during saunas which speed recovery. Detoxification is super important, especially in a modern society where the body is under a constant barrage of pollutants and poisons in water, food, air, off-gassing furniture, etc. All of these contaminants contribute to slowing recovery, lowering resistance to illness and injury, and deteriorating health, unless removed or offset by other factors. The use of saunas is a simple, easy, cheap, and pleasant way to achieve detoxification.
Researchers analyzed the sweat given off during sauna use and found proteins were being produced by the body that defends against bacteria, fungi and other pathogens that can cause illness. It turns out these proteins protect the skin against skin damage, invading pathogens, and inflammation. Sweating during saunas removes heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, along with many others such as phytates , and BPA (causes demasculinization),  and thousands of harmful chemicals.
Another study by Canadian researchers found that certain toxins, poisons, and chemicals are only or primarily excreted in sweat. They discovered that the concentration of phytates, which are poisonous chemicals found in toys, fragrances, cosmetics, and other consumer goods was two times higher in sweat than in urine or blood.
Another study discovered that the gender bender BPA, which is found in almost all plastics, appeared in the sweat of 80 percent of subjects, but revealed no clues or detectable levels in either blood or urine. Obviously, sweat is the best method for excreting toxic BPA, and probably many other toxins, as well. In general, the sauna works better than the steam room for detoxification because people sweat more, due to the lower humidity and higher temperature, allowing large amounts of toxins to be released through sweating. Since the body stores toxins in fat cells to separate and protect the rest of the body’s cells, losing body fat also means dumping toxins, removal of which is essential to full power capacity as a martial artist. While in the sauna, periodically wipe off sweat with a towel, thereby removing toxins as they surface, in order to take full advantage of major detoxing effects.
Major Heart Health Protection is Better than Recovery
Heart health is one place where no martial artist wants to deal with recovery. Consistent use of a sauna has been proven to keep the heart healthy, and working more effectively, for many years longer than it would without a sauna. A 20-year study proved that just sitting in a sauna 4 to 7 times a week makes a huge difference, reducing the chances of a sudden fatal cardiac event by:
A research study of about 2,000 middle-aged Finnish men proved that visiting a sauna several times a week had a longer life expectancy and fewer died from heart attacks. Basically, the longer they stayed in the sauna, the more cardiovascular protection was developed. Staying in the sauna for more than 19 minutes, 2 or 3 times per week gave them a 52 percent reduced chance of sudden cardiac death than those who stayed less long. Sauna use makes blood vessels more flexible, less stiff and lowers blood pressure .
Benefits to Martial Artists Include the Lungs and Cardiovascular
Another area of the body where maintaining health is way better than getting stuck dealing with recovery. Research has found that regular sauna use can positively contribute to heart health. Researchers in Finland have found that saunas benefit the heart, and mimic the circulatory benefits of exercise. The immersive heat raises the heart rate, causing blood circulation to be boosted throughout the body.
Researchers in Japan have further discovered that saunas may improve the health of cells within the heart arteries, specifically by boosting the strength of cells that form the artery lining. Alongside the well-documented heart benefits provided by exercise, a sauna further enhances cardiovascular health . Sauna use helps lungs by opening and cleaning them, removing toxins from the throat, lungs, and sinuses. It also increases breathing efficiency on a cellular level, increasing oxygen availability, thereby aiding in injury and/or exercise recovery.
Saunas Speed Recovery by Creating Positivity, Good Mental Health, and Mental Relaxation
Extensive research has been done that proves positive mental attitude and emotional health speeds up recovery tremendously. Exercise provides many mental and emotional benefits, and using a sauna does, as well. Many studies have shown a directly related improvement in the emotional and mental state of subjects after using a sauna.
The most noticeable changes involve their emotional satisfaction level, mental clarity, and relaxation levels. This is an important aspect that positively impacts athletes who need to slow down, mentally unwind, decompress, and relax.
Meditation During Sauna Sessions
In several alternative sauna forms, including Native American sweat lodges and Aboriginal Australian sweat lodges, deep contemplation and meditation were traditionally performed. Saunas are very conducive to quiet contemplation, and easy post-workout meditation sessions which positively impact recovery and help distress athletes.
Saunas Increase Blood Circulation and Give Faster Recovery
The heating effect of the sauna results in increased circulation, while the heat and the circulation effects help the body heal from muscular and joint injuries faster and more effectively. The muscles become warm and relaxed, and antibodies get pumped to the damaged site quicker, resulting in a shorter recovery time.
Saunas Assist with Weight Loss
Saunas can help with weight loss, too. Saunas increase heart rate while lowering blood pressure, increasing oxygenation levels, and upping metabolic rate. These are the same physical effects produced through intense physical exercise, and that’s because the body responds to heat stress similarly to exercise. Doing a major workout will raise heartbeat, respiration, and body core temperature, burning sugars and fats over a duration of the exercise.
Using a sauna essentially achieves the same result, physiologically speaking, while upping the use of calories for a time after finishing the sauna session.
A study of women riding stationary bicycles with or without far infrared light sauna exposure found that those receiving far infrared light sauna time experienced a 444 percent increase in weight loss as compared to the group not receiving it .
If weight loss is an important goal, using a sauna at least 3 times a week for longer than 30 minutes, especially after a workout, will help accomplish that goal more quickly. It’s kind of a freebie, since the sauna feels great, helps with recovery, but then it also effectively ‘works out’ the body while sitting there relaxing.
Never Use Saunas to Cut or Make Weight
Saunas are not recommended for quick, effective weight loss typically desired by event fighters. There are too many cases of illness or death caused by the unwise use of saunas for weight control, especially when combined with dehydration. Also, if there are symptoms of any illness, delay using the sauna, as it may exacerbate symptoms.
3 Different Types Of Saunas For Recovery
In conclusion, deep penetration of infrared heat (approximately 3–4 cm into fat tissue and neuromuscular system) with mild temperature (35–50°C), and light humidity (25–35%) during FIRS bathing appears favorable for the neuromuscular system to recover from maximal endurance performance. FIRS bathing is a very light loading for the body and provides a comfortable and relaxing experience.
Infrared saunas yield the most health benefits since heat is able to reach significantly deeper, 3-4 cm into the skin, fat tissue, and neuromuscular system with a relatively low temperature, approximately 95—122 F, and humidity, approximately 25 to 35 percent . Infrared saunas deep heat the body to levels other saunas are not able to reach, helping the neuromuscular system recover from maxed out fights and training .
These sauna baths are cycles of exposure to heat, then cooling off, rinse and repeat. The length of stay in the sauna ranges from 5 to 20 minutes, followed by a cooling dip, shower, swim, or sitting out of the sauna for about 30 minutes. One study concluded that the infrared sauna therapy dilated blood vessels, reduced the volume of their inner lining, and increased circulation, which in turn helps lower blood pressure .
The wet sauna mist type increases the level of blood flow through the skin and the amount of oxygenated hemoglobin becomes very high. This type of sauna is difficult for many people to tolerate. Sessions will typically include two to three rounds of 5-15 minutes, then a cooling off period. The humidity in the steam room results in a faster rise in core body temperature and does not allow for releasing body heat through perspiration. Sweat cannot evaporate because of the high humidity. The steam room supports recovery, immune function, cardiovascular benefits. An optimal schedule will be two to three times per week. Do it for at least two months and you should notice a difference.
This type of sauna has been used in Finland for over 2,000 years, has a much higher temperature, but also much lower humidity, which makes it tolerated more easily for many people. This sauna is excellent for recovery, relaxation, and detoxification allows more sweating, which further supports detoxification, and is generally more comfortable.
Many deaths have been attributed to drinking alcohol while using a sauna.. Heat therapy is also not a good ‘morning after’ approach, either, since part of the reason for a hangover is dehydration, and the heat could make that even worse. Use caution if recovering from adrenal fatigue or exhaustion, have asthma, a history of heart disease or hypertension, are pregnant (contraindicated for pregnancy), instable angina pectoris, recent heart attack, and severe stenosis of the aorta. Always speak with your doctor about the use of saunas for your particular health situation.