7 Science-Backed Ways Saunas Boost Brain Health

How Sauna Helps Brain Function

How Saunas Improve Cognitive Function and Boost Brain Health

Medical Disclaimer: You should always consult your physician or preferred healthcare professional before starting any exercise program or fitness protocol. All information and content provided are only for general education and informational purposes.

1.) Saunas Boost Focus by Releasing Norepinephrine

Regular sauna use and becoming heat acclimated can naturally raise your body’s levels of norepinephrine (noradrenaline.)

When you use a sauna, your body is experiencing heat stress. While stress in large quantities is generally a bad thing, small and manageable amounts of stress in controlled environments can produce tremendous benefits to your body through a process called hormesis. 

Norepinephrine is a powerful stress hormone and neurotransmitter. Its job is to protect you from danger when your brain detects a stressful event has occurred. It does this by increasing attention, focus, memory recall, and managing your emotions.

Because your brain perceives heat stress just like any other form of stress, it releases norepinephrine as a response to its environment, giving you a boost of focus and attention.

Luckily, this is all done in a controlled environment. You control the temperature and exposure time in a sauna and can step out whenever you need to. Just like exercise, you can control the amount of stress put on your body to achieve the maximum benefit without overdoing it and damaging your body.

2.) Saunas Improve Learning and Memory by Releasing Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF)

Heat exposure therapy increases concentrations of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF.) 

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor is a fascinating protein whose purpose is to encourage the growth of new neurons and synapses, maintain them throughout their lifecycle, and support their survival.

BDNF is active in the areas of the brain critical to learning, higher thinking, and long-term memory. Since its job is to stimulate the growth of new neurons, BDNF plays a significant role in neurogenesis and optimizing cognitive function as you age.

Regular sauna use can help improve your natural concentrations of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, giving you its neuroprotective benefits right along with improvements to complex cognitive thinking and memory recall.

3.) Saunas Can Reduce the Risk of Dementia and Alzheimer’s

population-based study conducted on men and women from Finland showed a correlation to sauna use’s protection against the development of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Other studies, like this study from the scientific journal Age and Aging, have also shown the same association of moderate to frequent sauna use with lowered risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Identifying the inverse correlation between sauna use and degenerative brain diseases is the first step to understanding the exact mechanisms to why it works. While there are many hypotheses, the research on both sauna use and the cause of these conditions is still being explored.

Likely, the sauna’s benefit for reducing other risk factors such as hypertension, vascular problems, and inflammation, combined with its neuroprotective properties, plays a significant role in protecting from these forms of degenerative diseases. Additionally, heat shock protein’s ability to modulate amyloidogenic proteins may also play an important role. We’ll outline that in more detail later in section 6.

4.) Saunas Can Improve Symptoms of Depression

The heat stress response from sauna use is a promising modality for its rapid-acting effects as an anti-depressant. 

A six-week randomized, double-blind study published in JAMA Psychiatry tested the effectiveness of heat stress through whole-body hyperthermia as a treatment for major depressive disorder.

The participants randomized to whole-body hyperthermia showed significantly reduced Hamilton Depression Rating Scale scores across the six weeks of the study.

Many hypotheses regarding heat stress’ effect on mood exist. One of them is that sauna use releases beta-endorphins and dynorphins, which help produce positive feelings of well-being, happiness, and pain relief. Endorphins are neuropeptides responsible for pain management and activate the natural reward circuits in the brain.

Endorphins are the same chemical present during the renowned “runner’s high.” Their effects can help break the cycle of negative thought patterns and improve positive mood and an enhanced sense of well-being.

5.) Saunas Improve Cognitive Economy

The International Journal of Hyperthermia conducted a study investigating the sauna’s effect on brain network activation, information processing, and cognitive performance after the body returns to normal temperatures after a sauna session.

The participants took resting EEG (electroencephalography) measurements while performing various tasks before a 90-minute session in the sauna. After the session and their body temperature returned to normal levels, the participants completed the tasks again to record another EEG analysis. 

The study results showed enhanced resting neural relaxation and an increase in cognitive processing economy while performing the tasks after the sauna session.

Cognitive economy is how efficiently your brain organizes information and minimizes the amount of working memory resources during cognition. 

Complex thinking requires a lot of energy, and typically the brain accounts for up to 20% of the body’s total energy use during the day. Improving your cognitive processing economy allows you to do more with less, making the sauna a powerful ally in enhancing your brainpower.

6.) Saunas Release Heat Shock Proteins

Heat stress produced by the sauna triggers the activation of heat shock proteins. Heat shock proteins are like little cellular directors that tell amino acids where to be sent to repair damage and ensure proteins take the right shape.

Along with their role in regenerating muscle tissue, heat shock proteins also protect the heart, improve insulin resistance, prevent cell death, and support the immune system.

Additionally, they also may play an essential role in protecting against neurodegenerative diseases. Most neurogenerative diseases have a characteristic accumulation and aggregation of misfolded proteins like amyloid plaques. Heat shock protein’s ability to prevent proteins from folding improperly allows them to modulate amyloidogenic protein aggregation. 

The neuroprotective benefits and the physically-protective benefits of sauna use create an environment for healthy brain function and can serve as prevention against some degenerative conditions. 

7.) Saunas Reduce Stress and Anxiety

Heat stress acclimation helps your body manage and balance your stress hormones like cortisol.

Cortisol is the hormone released by the adrenal glands in response to fear and stress. Anxiety and stress both degrade your mental and physical health by elevating your cortisol levels for extended periods of time.

Your body needs to be in balance to function properly. Cortisol can sometimes be a useful tool that helps your body deal with stressful situations at the moment they occur. But your body also needs to be effective at returning to a relaxed state following the event. Otherwise, extended periods of heightened stress responses can wreak havoc on your body.

When practiced regularly, sauna use can induce various positive hormonal changes, including reducing cortisol levels by significant amounts after a heat-exposure session.

Sauna use exposes your body to a minor stressor in a controlled environment. Just like lifting weights slowly allows your body to adapt and become better at managing additional resistance, heat-stress exposure is like a workout that teaches your body how to manage the physiological responses to stress more effectively.

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