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Saunas: Too Hot to Handle? The Secret Sauna – Episode 1

Saunas: Too Hot to Handle? The Secret Sauna – Episode 1

For many years I was a regular visitor to the local swimming pool in Loughton, a small town on the edge of London. In those days, a sauna and a steam were thrown in for the price of a swim. When I moved to a small town in Norfolk I discovered that the local pool only offered a rather tepid jacuzzi, and even then only at certain, very restrictive, times. Sometimes, you don’t know how much you will miss something until it is gone.

Whilst studying red light therapy for an upcoming blog, I came across several interesting articles by Ari Whitten and Dr. Joseph Mercola referring to the well studied benefits of taking a regular sauna. The more I mused on the subject, the more I missed having a sauna regularly available.

Sweat Saunas book by Mikkel Aaland
Saunas, or their equivalents, have existed across many cultures across geography and throughout history.

The Germ of an Idea

A plan started to form in my brain. I have an old and leaky shed in my back garden. It’s not up to much and, to be honest, we simply use it for storing a few tools and other odds and sods. Could I actually strip back the inside to four bare walls and use that space as a base for our own sauna?

My wobbly and dilapidated shed…

The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. I discussed the plan with my wife who also felt it was intriguing. Originally, we looked through Amazon for a prefabricated design but were a little shocked to find that these began at around £3,000 and were not that generous in regards to the space they offered.

Barrel Sauna
This one comes in around £5,000. It is a nice design but seems a lot of money for what it is to me.

Looking at the structures they were selling though, they didn’t look particularly complicated. Just various-shaped frames clad with an appropriate wood. Add in a light, a bench, a heater, and a thermometer and that was more or less it. Now, I am no great DIYer but there didn’t look to be anything in those designs beyond even my modest skills.

I costed out what I thought would be the materials involved in making a three-person sauna, complete with changing area, within the stripped-out shed. It came to considerably less than £1,000. After a little humming and harring, I concluded it would make for an interesting challenge. I started the project just under a week ago.

How to Build Your Own Saunas Book
Unfortunately, only available on Kindle, but better than most of the other build books.

Why a Sauna?

The benefits of having regular saunas have been the subject of a large amount of study for quite some time. It was estimated at one time that there were as many as 2 million saunas in Finland, that’s about 1 sauna for every 2.5 people. Maybe because of the depth of sauna culture in Finland, much of the scientific work has been led, as you might expect, by the Finns themselves.

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They can positively impact Mitochondrial Health

I am not a great one for predicting the future but I would be willing to bet that mitochondrial health will soon be very big in the fitness and longevity world. Essentially, mitochondria are the energy creators for our cells. The health of these tiny organelles is fundamental for those of us whose stated aim is to stay healthy and stay vital. A simple way of thinking of them is as the cells batteries. If they are not functioning adequately, the cells ceases to be able to carry out their designated role.

When the body is under heat stress it produces heat shock proteins. These play a major role in promoting mitochondrial health and function (1). One of the best ways to induce heat stress is by spending time in a sauna. It is yet another example of a hormetic response, as spoken of in a previous blog (2).

Saunas can help to lower Blood Pressure

It used to be the case that if you suffered from high blood pressure it was better to avoid hot saunas. The notion was that the heat stress was likely to increase your blood pressure. Recent research has suggested, though, that the heat from a sauna facilitates the dilation of blood vessels. They also cause you to sweat profusely, help you relax, and lessen arterial stiffness. All these factors can help prevent high blood pressure (3).

Having said that, care needs to be taken. If you have problems with high blood pressure, don’t immediately dive into a 200°F+ sauna. Get used to it gently, training your body to take advantage of the sauna without going over the top. If you have already been diagnosed with high blood pressure, it would be wise to consult a doctor first.

Saunas can aid and protect Muscle Growth

Taking a sauna has been shown to have positive effects on muscle growth, hence it is a useful intervention for those of us attempting to build muscle. It also gives a measure of protection from muscle breakdown (4). If you have suffered an injury during your training, or for whatever reason, using a sauna can also help to prevent muscle loss.

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Taking a sauna increases your growth hormone levels. How much it does this is dependent on several factors. How long you are in the sauna, how hot the sauna is, how many times a week you take a sauna – all these factors influence the amount of stimulation of growth hormone levels. The effect can be anywhere between a doubling all the way up to a five-fold increase. Some studies even indicate that greater increases are possible (5).

These increases in growth hormone stimulate a metabolic pathway that results in increases in protein synthesis, while simultaneously decreasing protein breakdown. All this results in greater potential for muscle growth.

Saunas may stimulate production of BDNF

I wrote a couple of blogs about neurogenesis and BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) a few weeks back (6), (7). In simple terms, neurogenesis is the creation of new neurons, something that was thought impossible only a few years back. BDNF aids in this process while, at the same time, improving the survival and health of existing neurons and their dendritic infrastructure.

Saunas, like exercise, increase levels of BDNF, hence taking them on a regular basis is likely to help in maintaining a healthy brain and promote neurogenesis.

How Saunas may positively impact Depression

Saunas can also have a beneficial effect for those who suffer from depression. Some of this effect may be linked to the production of BDNF and neurogenesis in general. In simple terms, they promote brain health at this level.

There is a strange paradox at work in regards to saunas and depression. In the recent past, depression has been tied to increases in core body temperature. Oddly though, given this fact, treating people with depression with doses of very high heat (as you would experience in a sauna), can lead to a substantial improvement in states of depression (8).

This may be yet another example of a hormetic effect. The body’s reaction to the excess heat may be helping to balance the depressive reaction that is linked to higher core temperatures. Almost as if it were teaching the body how to handle such challenges, as it were.

More to follow as the series unfolds …

I think that will do for now as far as the theory goes. The plan is to delve deeper into the effects of saunas as this series unfolds. There is much to examine and ponder but, for now at least, let us return to the task of actually creating one …

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Progress so far

At this stage, we are less than a week into the project. Due to my parental and writing duties, I have only been able to devote a few hours a day to the task. That said, it feels as if a reasonable amount of progress has been made.

Breaking Down …

A couple of sessions were spent saving whatever was useful in the old shed and transferring it into my workshop/office. This meant the acquisition of a work bench and a couple of shelves. These were moved and installed in a couple of hours, much to the benefit of the general tidiness of the woffice.

A couple of trips to the local dump later I was was left with an empty shed. Ramshackle, run-down, and dilapidated it’s true, but at least I had a basic and relatively clean shell to work with.

Building Up …

After installing some rainproof sheeting around the walls, I was somewhat disappointed the next morning to find wet patches on the floor of the shed. After some investigation, it turned out that the roof itself was leaking. Two steps forward, one step back. Fortunately, this problem was quickly solved by the generosity of a neighbour with some roof felt to spare.

First day after lining the walls, I discovered that the roof was leaking. A great start …

As we go into the second week, I have purchased some of the requisite stud work. It’s only 3 x1.5 inches but it doesn’t need to be that strong. Trying to measure up the space has proven to be something of a nightmare though. There is barely a straight line in the shed. It slopes from back to front, has a bow in the wooden floor, and feels none too stable.

Given all those challenges, trying to impose uniformity at this stage is not going to be possible. Instead of repeating measurements, I am choosing to simply measure gaps, often simply by sizing the studs up against each other. It’s not exactly precision engineering, but I think it is far more likely to work in practice.

Well, that’s about it for week 1 of the great sauna project. The plan is to update this blog/project every couple of weeks or so. If all goes reasonably well, I am hoping to finish the project by mid-May and take my first sauna immediately afterwards.

Fingers crossed…


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