Fairly early on in my journey toward better health, I kept running into all the research touting the benefits of sauna use. None of these prescribed a specific sauna protocol, but noted that there seemed to be many benefits that correlated with regular use of sauna. Sauna use wasn’t really foreign to me. I had traveled to Ukraine where it was a part of the culture. Some Russian-American friends of mine had also introduced me to the ‘Banya’. I always sort of dreamt about having my own traditional sauna, but the cost and other considerations just always made it seem so impractical. Would I really use it often enough? How would I find the time to incorporate it into my schedule?
Traditional vs Infrared
Research started to show the mechanisms of action for why sauna seemed to have such positive health benefits. Most of this was done using a ‘traditional’ Finnish style sauna. These are often wood fired and include steam. I kept looking into what it would take to build and maintain one of these and kept deciding that it was too much for me to take on. A spa that I went to for my regular massages had an infrared sauna and I started to add that into my routine. I noticed that my massage seemed to be much more effective when I started with a sauna session.
An infrared sauna is different from a traditional sauna in that they are ‘dry’ saunas. No steam is used. Instead of the air being heated via convection, these saunas used near and far infrared to heat your body directly. In addition to the lack of steam, these saunas stay at much lower ambient air temperatures compared to a traditional sauna. More and more people were using infrared saunas, but it was unclear if these had the same health benefits.
Eventually, studies started to show that infrared saunas not only conveyed many of the same benefits as traditional saunas, but in some cases, provided even more! At this point, I started to seriously investigate this style of sauna. During 2020, I ended up purchasing and constructing one that my research showed was one of the best models available at the time.
What are the Benefits of Sauna Use?
So what was I trying to accomplish with regular sauna use? Originally, I wanted to use it as a recovery tool. I was hoping to ‘destress’ and heal my sore joints and muscles from upping my workouts. I had known from my use at the spa that it seemed to be very effective at this. While researching infrared saunas it seemed that this was likely due to the ability for them to lower inflammation.
There were also numerous studies touting the cardio protective effects of frequent sauna use. Lowering my blood pressure was something that I also was very interested in doing… Especially through ways that did not involve pharmaceuticals. There was conflicting information early on about using infrared sauna for detox purposes. It seemed reasonable though, that if were causing you to sweat, it was likely helping in some ways with this. More recently, research into sauna’s ability to raise human growth hormone production has been very appealing in terms of taking my workouts to the next level.
There are many other benefits of sauna use, but these were the main ones that initially interested me. Many research papers now have been focusing on how sauna upregulates the production of Heat Shock Proteins and the cytoprotective benefits that they convey. It seems like regular sauna use is one of the best things you can do in order to create a better healthspan.
My Sauna Protocol
Initially, I just sat in my sauna and listened to music or podcasts. Soon I was spending between 20 and 40 minutes 4+ times a week in there. My productivity obsessed mind started to preoccupy itself with other ways that I could be making the most of this time. Moving my meditation practice to coincide with sauna time was a natural progression, but I quickly developed a sauna protocol that I follow just about every time I use it. This protocol centers around a few central themes:
- I want to make the most of the time that I spend in the sauna.
- Most of the time, I want my session to focus on maximizing my recovery.
- I want to enhance the benefits of my work out. To me, this is still focused on losing fat, while maintaining/building muscle.
- I want to make the most of any detoxifying benefits that the sauna provides.
With all of this in mind, my sauna protocol begins even before I turn on the sauna.
Before Sauna Protocol
With very few exceptions, I almost always workout before I use the sauna. Most days, I work out in a fasted state. On days that I don’t, I still make sure I’m at least 2 hours fasted before using the sauna. This is so that I can go in with lower blood sugar levels and to help maximize fat burning.
About 30 minutes before I get into the sauna, I drink a large glass of water loaded with the following supplements:
- Trimethylglycine (TMG)
- Artichoke Extract
- Liquid Zeolite
Along with this pre-sauna drink, I take a few capsules of Calcium D-Glutarate, and liver supportive herbs. Milk thistle has become one of my favorites for this. The purpose of most of these items is to get my liver in a state where it’s a toxin processing machine. The others are for binding toxins for excretion later. The TMG is because I’m a poor methylator and optimal methylation is important for great liver functioning. The niacin should be taken in an amount that is just large enough to induce a flush response in you. This helps to liberate toxins from your fat tissue. Side note for anyone looking for a great place to buy supplements… check out my link for BulkSupplements on my affiliate page for a discount!
Once I’m in the sauna, I continue to hydrate. Some days I’ll sit in the sauna starting at 80 degrees F while it warms up. Most days, I’ll wait to enter the sauna until it’s over 150 degrees inside. There is research that shows different benefits using both of these approaches. Warming up with the sauna seems to convey more noticeable tissue related benefits. The higher temperatures encourage heat shock protein production and is a cardio mimetic. This also more closely approximates what is seen in the traditional sauna studies. Either way, I’m staying in the sauna for at least 20 minutes and most of the time go for 30 minutes plus a cool down period.
I still listen to music/podcasts while in the sauna. Depending on the day, I may do a meditation practice or some stretching/yoga during this time. Most days a breathwork routine is also included. This is either Kapalabhati or Nadi Shodhana pranayama (post on breathwork coming soon!).
After Sauna Protocol
When the sauna ends, the protocol continues… sometimes I’ll prepare a cold plunge for as soon as I’m finished. Most days, I’ll just hop in a shower. It’s important to get all of the excreted toxins off your skin. If I don’t do a full cold shower, I always end with 2 minutes of cold. Studies have shown this hot/cold contrast to impart even greater benefits. Note that it’s very important to always finish with cold. Not matter which option I choose, I drink another glass of cold water with added electrolytes. I drink this with either activated charcoal or chlorella (more binders).
So is all of this ‘worth it’? I still use the infrared sauna 4+ times a week. My biomarkers related to the items I was looking to improve with sauna have all trended in the right direction. Based on before and after readings using my BPM Connect, my blood pressure was lower. I’ve also noticed some additional benefits.
It Feels Great
The sauna/cold plunge combination just generally makes me feel like a million bucks. My overall mood has improved dramatically since I’ve started using the sauna. It’s guaranteed that no matter how I go into the sauna, I’m going to feel better when I leave.
I’ve noticed (and Oura confirms) that my sleep is much better. This is especially true if I use the sauna later in the day. Something about the raise in body temperature about 2 hours away from bedtime that really makes me sleep great.
After months of following this sauna protocol, I continually had people that have known me for years comment on how great my skin looks. When strangers find out my actual age, they often say the same. Since I don’t really do any thing that’s focused on improving the look of my skin, I attribute all of this to the sauna.
This has been most noticeable on my backpacking excursions. I used to dread hiking in the heat of the summer, but it doesn’t really bother me anymore. In general, I never really liked doing anything outdoors in the heat. I can tolerate the heat much more now.
There’s no doubt that I’ve had fewer colds since I’ve started using the sauna. When I did get sick, the duration has been shortened compared to prior years. Recently, I’ve started using the sauna multiple times a day for shorter periods if I feel a potential cold coming on. This seems to have had a positive impact on the course of any illness.