As we enjoy the glorious colors of fall and the cooler weather, this is a great time to do some planning to protect ourselves for the upcoming winter when our immune systems are especially vulnerable. It goes without saying that eating well, getting enough sleep, getting some exercise, and drinking quality water goes a long way for the health of your immune system but did you know saunas are also great for your immune system? It’s true. Relaxing in the sauna a couple of times a week may be your best strategy for keeping healthy year-round.
Because there are many strains of bacteria and viruses which adapt to the changing environment, there is still no consistently effective prevention or treatment strategy for the common cold or flu. It’s more productive to focus on strengthening your immune system rather than focusing on how to disarm the seemingly infinite number of “germs” out there. In this article, I’ll discuss five ways infrared saunas can help arm your own immune system against those “invaders” while giving you a deep sense of relaxation and well-being.
1. A sauna works similarly to a fever
When your body is fighting an infection like a cold or flu, the immune system causes an increase in temperature, anywhere from 100.9°F or higher, which is considered a fever. This elevated temperature creates a less suitable environment for these destructive bugs.
Infrared saunas work similarly to a fever in the body. The infrared heat penetrates the skin and works deep in the tissues, raising core body temperature to about 100-101°F. The body responds to this simulated “fever” by stepping up its immune response and mobilizing the Th1 branch of the immune system. This branch is antiviral and antibacterial, as opposed to the anti-parasitic and anti-allergic Th2 system.
Additionally, increasing the body temperature to within the range of a fever has been shown to improve the adaptive immune response. This helps the body “remember” the microbes you’ve been exposed to, and to be better prepared to fight them next time around.
It’s more productive to focus on strengthening your immune system rather than focusing on how to disarm the seemingly infinite number of “germs” out there.
2. Saunas make us more resilient
While extreme stress and chronic stress are bad for us, small amounts of stress can be good for our bodies and make us more resilient. Think of exercise. Your muscles get sore, but then they get stronger. That’s an example of a concept called “hormesis.” Saunas are another cause of hormesis. The high temperatures of the sauna are a short-term stress on the body and cause it to improve its adaptability to heat stress. “Heat shock proteins” (HSP) are then produced, which help the body do a better job of creating proteins for healing and metabolism. HSPs also improve the function of the immune system.
By spending time in an infrared sauna you may be making your immune system younger. Since the immune system needs to be continuously replenished by immune stem cells located in the bone marrow and thymus, it is particularly affected by aging. Those stem cells get depleted over time and a person is more susceptible to viruses as he or she gets older. The good news is that light from the near infrared spectrum is seemingly able to stimulate the mitochondria of those stem cells resulting in more white blood cells and a stronger immune system.
3. Saunas lower your stress response
You’ve probably noticed that just when you have too much on your plate, you also come down with a cold or the flu. You’re forced to take a few days off… just when you don’t have time for it. We know that stress increases the levels of cortisol in the body, and it turns out that cortisol lowers the body’s ability to fight off germs.
A 2015 Finnish study found that far infrared sauna bathing with its 3-4 cm penetration into tissue reduced cortisol levels in men who had just exercised. A review study also found far infrared therapy to be helpful for lowering cortisol. Offsetting heightened stress hormones like cortisol will help your body stay balanced and ready to fight off any bug that comes along.
4. A sauna before bed can help you sleep
Did you know that not getting enough sleep can set you up for getting a virus? Deep sleep is especially important for maintaining a strong and balanced antiviral immune response. Many animals hibernate in the winter. There’s a reason the days are shorter and the nights are longer. Take advantage of those longer nights and get your rest.
According to a board-certified sleep psychologist, making sure you have a steep drop in body temperature in the evening before bed helps cue your body that it’s time to sleep. Using the infrared sauna in the late afternoon or early evening helps penetrate heat deep into your tissues. As you cool down, your body will have a drop in temperature giving your body clear “zeitgebers,” or time indicators and a relaxing, deeper sleep. The drop in temperature before bed also helps train your body’s natural circadian rhythm.
5. Using the sauna helps keep the common cold away
An Austrian study published in the Annals of Medicine had 25 healthy volunteers commit to regular sauna bathing while another 25 did not sauna bathe over a six month period. Those who regularly took saunas had significantly fewer incidences of the common cold than those who avoided saunas. The difference was especially notable after 14 consecutive weeks of sauna use. Regular usage is considered to be at least twice a week.
The bottom line is when we provide our body with the environment and rest it needs, healthy function will naturally follow. Maintaining optimal, long term immune health and physiological balance is the goal with simple healthy habits being the means.