We’ve known for some time now the overall health benefits of infrared sauna bathing on human physiology, but research focussed specifically on the benefits of infrared saunas for women is something that has been relatively untouched. That was, up until recently, when Dr. Joy Hussain conducted a pilot study to explore how the female body reacts to thermoregulation facilitated by infrared saunas.
Dr. Joy Hussain is a renowned medical practitioner, researcher, acupuncturist, and remote medicine specialist who has devoted her Ph.D. research to sauna bathing, as well as the impact of sweating on our bodies. The phenomenon of sweating is something recognised, but relatively unexplored in established research, which is precisely what Dr. Hussain has devoted her research to in recent years.
We sat down with Dr. Hussain in a recent episode of The Sauna Show to discover what her recent pilot study can point to in terms of the health benefits, specifically for women, that can be facilitated in an infrared sauna.
Individualised Research Exploring Individual Health Benefits Of Infrared Saunas
One of the most interesting aspects of Dr. Hussain’s study is the fact that she used individuals as their own control group for the research. Meaning that the results tallied for each woman while exercising, meditating, and inside an infrared sauna, can be seen as a more accurate depiction of the health benefits, rather than comparing them to a sample from a different group.
“You often hear about randomised controlled trials where they’ll actually have a controlled group that is put through something similar to what is being compared. For me, I really think saunas are something that should be measured individually. The effects it has are very individual, so I wanted to set up a trial that used people as their own controls.” Quite simply, Dr. Hussain took her baseline figures from the group after their meditation sessions and compared their sweat and urine samples after 45-minute sessions of exercising and inside an infrared sauna.
Interestingly, Dr. Hussain says that the ‘control’ activity of meditation actually had a more noticeable impact than she had anticipated. “Some of the things I looked at like arterial stiffness and heart-rate variability changes were very similar in all three sessions. I think that’s because that meditative ‘control’ session wasn’t doing nothing, it was doing something as well.”
Infrared Saunas Stimulate The Immune System With Core Temperature Rises 11:06
Dr. Hussain says that her pilot study helped to illuminate three major findings, the first of which centered on the fact that the body’s core temperature rises significantly higher in an infrared sauna than in a traditional sauna. “With infrared saunas, there is no question, the core temperature goes significantly higher than bicycling or in the control, by nearly a full degree, which doesn’t sound like much, but it really is.” This increase in core temperature can be seen as a valuable tool to boost the effectiveness of our immune system to fight pathogens and toxins within the body. “I do think that you are turning on and turning off certain genes similar to our own body and how it thermoregulates, and how it helps as a tool of immune function when you need it - stimulating the immune system.”
Respiratory Rates Remain Stable During Sauna Use 14:30
Dr. Hussain says that the second finding was that the body’s respiratory rate increased during exercise, but remained stable in both the infrared sauna and the control. Dr. Hussain speaks of how too much oxygen can actually give rise to reactive oxygenated species (which are toxins) that are created during exercise. The stable respiratory rates on offer inside an infrared sauna can be seen as a health benefit that promotes cardiovascular health, as Dr. Hussain explores.
“I think an infrared sauna gives you some of the cardiovascular benefits of increased blood flow, increased heart rate, increased pulse rate, without having increased oxygen and reactive oxygen species formation. I think these are some of the mechanisms that are behind some of the ageing [we experience], these reactive oxygen species are starting to affect some of the parts of mitochondria of our cells, and I think this is shining a light on a future research topic that needs some more evidence around.”
“The other thing this is pointing out is the power of breath. I think using the lever of breath, combined with the heat of a sauna, especially the gentler heat of an infrared sauna could be quite a powerful tool that needs further exploration.”
Saunas Offer Far More Cellular Heat & Skin Benefits Than Exercise 21:00
Dr. Hussain’s pilot study also illuminated that women have higher skin temperatures, which has led her to believe that the benefits of infrared saunas on our skin hold their weight. “Women sweat more, and what’s interesting is their skin temperatures - especially in the back - were higher with infrared, lowest with exercise and in between with the control.” She continued to explain that this could indicate “some of the effects we might be looking around at our skin and saunas.”
In terms of the health benefits of a higher skin temperature, Dr. Hussain says that infrared saunas offer a significantly different impact on our largest organ, the skin, than exercise. “Although you are sweating, you are not getting that elevated temperature to the cells in your skin. Remember, that lever is turning on genes and turning off genes, and we’re just now in a position where we can start to examine some of these things, so we’re just at the tip of the iceberg.”
“People who are frequent sauna-goers tend to have a more hearty moisture barrier, which is what gives our skin plumpness, that’s one of its functions, to ‘seal us off’ from the environment. I’m thinking this heat training to the skin might be one of the factors that usually have a good effect [on our skin].”
Exploring The Health Benefits of Saunas Through A Different Prism
One of the most interesting points in the conversation is that Dr. Hussain says the big elephant in the room is that most of these studies have been conducted on men, rather than females. “I really do think, in terms of thermoregulation, that men and women are different beasts. In fact, us women have estrogen and progesterone and we cycle when we’re pre-menopausal, but there’s no question that our body temperatures are different. At the beginning of our cycle, we’re a full degree lower, when we’re about to menstruate, we’re a full degree higher.” Dr. Hussain’s research specifically using a control group of females represents an important step toward exploring more of the individual health benefits of sauna bathing that are possible in females, rather than males.
“We need more data around women. We can’t just keep assuming that one-size-fits-all with physiologies,” she says. There is also the point to be made about a number of existing studies that might not necessarily explore the most important aspects of the health benefits of sauna bathing. “I feel a lot of research projects, especially around something like sauna bathing, get done in this vacuum laboratory that doesn’t think three steps ahead of ‘how are we going to make this clinically meaningful for people who might be suffering from something or want to prevent a certain disorder,” she says.
“There are studies that tend to be set up by exercise physiologists or sports scientists - who aren’t always dealing in diseased populations… they’re dealing with athletes. That makes me wonder, are we looking through different prisms at the same thing.”
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