Sweat It Out: How Saunas Can Improve Immune Function
The immune system can be fickle, especially if it is not getting everything it needs to function at its best. As the body’s first line of defense, having a healthy immune system is vital to your overall health. This is especially true during this particular time because of the COVID pandemic.
There are many different things you can do to make sure your immune system is running as it should, such as getting enough exercise, eating a diet rich in vitamins and minerals, and practicing good personal hygiene. But many people are interested in doing more to help keep them safe from illness. After all, a poorly functioning immune system can lead to frequent illness and even chronic disease.
One such activity that many have regarded as great for immune health is relaxing in a sauna. But what does a sauna do for your health, exactly? And is it good for the immune system? Read on to learn all you need to know, including how saunas can improve immune function.
How beneficial is the sauna?
There are four types of sauna, all of which have their own health benefits. A traditional Finnish sauna is heated by burning wood in a stove with or without a chimney. The smoke-filled sauna is typically regarded as the better and more beneficial type. Finnish saunas are said to protect against heart disease and help relieve chronic pain, fatigue, and the symptoms of rheumatoid diseases.
A dry sauna uses dry heat to help reach high temperatures for extra health benefits. According to anecdotal evidence, dry sauna bathing can help to increase metabolism, aid in heart health, increase blood circulation, and reduce overall levels of stress.
The third type of sauna is the Turkish bath or the steam bath. It is typically a communal bathhouse that is popular in Islamic culture. Some health claims made about Turkish baths include better relaxation, decreased muscle tension, and improved blood circulation.
Lastly, we have the infrared sauna, which uses infrared light to create heat. Although studies are currently scarce on the health benefits of infrared saunas, some have found that they can be beneficial for heart health, brain health, and rheumatoid conditions.
Do saunas help the immune system?
Saunas are designed to make the body sweat by heating you up, dilating blood vessels, and causing the heart to pump more blood throughout the body. However, no two types of saunas are the same. One study examined the effect of a Finnish sauna on the immune system and found that heating the body in a sauna causes an increase in white blood cells – immune cells that help fight disease. However, the study found that the increase was only found in athletes as opposed to non-athletes.
Another study looked at the various effects of heat stress on the immune system in relation to COVID-19 (heat stress is essentially what occurs in a sauna). The study found that there were many positive effects on the immune system caused by heat stress. For example, exposing the body to heat in the way you do in a sauna can help to inhibit the action of pathogens, thus limiting their ability to make you sick. It also stimulates both the innate and adaptive immune systems, which can help mitigate inflammatory responses that could lead to excessive tissue damage. The study states that the heat stress felt in a sauna helps the immune system take action because it can “mimic the effects of fever”.
The same study also found that heat stress on the body can lead to the enhanced activity of natural killer cells – immune cells designed to limit the spread of tumors as well as microbial infections. The research also found that exposing the body to the heat stress on a regular basis could actually lead to a reduction in both cortisol and adrenaline, which leads to natural killer cells becoming stronger and more effective at what they do.
In addition to the aforementioned effects, being in a sauna or exposing yourself to heat stress can also stimulate certain proteins in the body that help the immune system identify antigens more effectively. These effects, according to the study, may be even further enhanced by alternating heat and cold exposure.
Are infrared saunas good for your immune system?
When it comes to infrared sauna and immune system studies, the research is quite scarce. That being said, there are some findings that suggest infrared saunas can be beneficial for your immunity. One particular study looked at the effects on immune health in mice that were undergoing peritoneal dialysis treatment, finding that infrared sauna treatment could decrease the number of inflammatory cells in their bodies as well as inhibit the action of certain cells that can lead to the immune system attacking itself. While this may not be proof that infrared saunas help boost the human immune system, it does shed light on the fact that they may be helpful in the prevention of autoimmune disease.
While the research surrounding particular saunas and their effect on the immune system is scarce (and often centered around animals), some studies have found that heat stress can be incredibly beneficial for immune health. Since a sauna is essentially putting the body under heat stress, it may be a good idea to try out some regular sauna time to help boost your immune system and keep yourself healthy all year round.