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Heat Therapy Benefits: What Science Says About Using Saunas, Hot Tubs and Infrared
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Heat Therapy Benefits: What Science Says About Using Saunas, Hot Tubs and Infrared

Consistently using heat therapy is more important than getting the temperature exactly right, and it’s important to start slow

It’s believed that saunas were first used in northern Europe around 7000 BC. In Finnish culture, saunas are a part of most households. Though we may think of saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs and hot springs as a luxury, these have been regularly enjoyed in almost every part of the world for thousands of years.

Heat therapy is commonly used in spas to relax and recover. Using heat therapy for its health benefits has gained popularity, and is promoted to be effective in increasing mood, metabolism and guarding against heart disease.  

Different types of heat therapy have all been studied. We’ll review the health benefits and offer tips on how to get the greatest return on your time and temperature.

Improves mood

When we’re exposed to high heat, our body will naturally release endorphins. This is because our body perceives this as a stressor, much like getting the “runners high.” Endorphins make us feel good because they interact with the opioid receptors in the brain, creating a general feeling of well-being and relaxation.

Interestingly, a molecule called dynorphin is also liberated when exposed to high heat. It gives you the feeling of wanting to get out of the heat because it causes you to eventually perceive it as pain. Eventually, the more this is released, the more opioid receptors are created as the body tries to find a way to feel good again. This means that in the long term, you’ll have more opioid receptors, and the ability for endorphins to bind to those receptors will be easier, leading to an overall increase in mood. 

One study even found that those who use the sauna had a lower risk of developing a psychiatric disorder, especially if the sauna was used 4-7 times per week. Although this evidence should be taken with a grain of salt as this was purely correlational, it is still one more reason to try heat therapy. 

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Increases metabolism

Like cold therapy, heat therapy can also increase your metabolism in the long run. This is great news for those who want to elevate their metabolism without the frigidness. It does so in a similar way as cold therapy, by converting white fat cells to beige fat, which is a more active form of the different types of fat cells, using more energy and therefore burning more calories. Switching between cold and hot exposure has the highest rates of conversion of white fat to beige fat, so using cold may still be in your best interest.

This study investigated what happens when you apply heat locally to the skin (without damaging it). The participants had an area heated to 105.8 degrees Fahrenheit. They found that this increased the amount of overall beige fat systemically. This may be because it causes a release of heat shock factor 1, which interacts with DNA that controls fat and sugar metabolism. This doesn’t mean you can target convert white fat to beige fat by applying heat to a specific area of the body. 

Lowers risk of heart disease

It is well-agreed that heat therapy lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. It does so through a few methods. When you are exposed to high heat, your blood vessels dilate, which improves blood flow. Flow-mediated dilation is one measurement that is used to assess someone’s risk of cardiovascular disease. This marker significantly improved after heat exposure. Using heat therapy also improved blood pressure

According to one study, those who used a sauna 4-7 times per week, for 10-20 minutes each time, at a temperature of 176-212 degrees Fahrenheit, were 50% less likely to die from heart disease and stroke. The authors even adjusted the statistics to remove variables that contribute to heart disease, like exercise and smoking. 

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Types of heat therapy needed for maximum benefits

Generally, if using a sauna, infrared sauna or steam room, the temperature should be between 176-212 degrees Fahrenheit. Over time, the body adapts and longer sessions or higher temperatures might be required. If that temperature is intolerable or poses a health risk, then start lower, it just means you might not be heat adapted. The greatest results are seen when switching between hot and cold, such as moving between a hot tub or sauna and a cold tub.

The length of time varies per individual, anywhere from 5-20 minutes should be sufficient. Using a hot tub can also be effective. The water should be hot enough to where you feel like you want to get out, but not too hot to where it can damage your body. This will be different for each person depending on their heat tolerance. 

Infrared saunas are just as effective if the heat is high enough. There may be some evidence that infrared waves cause the skin to respond differently and heat your core up quicker, but that is still yet to be confirmed. 

Conclusion

Heat therapy is a great way to feel better, improve your metabolism and lower your risk of heart disease. It is another tool you can add to your regimen of self-care that will likely increase your longevity. Consistently using heat therapy is more important than getting the temperature exactly right. Remember to start slow and always consult your doctor as high heat can be dangerous. 

This article is for informational purposes only and should not be used without the advice of your doctor. It does not claim to treat or cure health conditions. 

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