Stress is essential to human survival. Long-term exposure to stress, however, increases a person’s risk of developing many chronic diseases. A recent review suggests that sauna bathing protects the body from the harmful effects of high stress occupations and describes the mechanisms that drive the protection.
People who work in high-stress occupations, such as firefighters, first responders, and military members, are exposed to both physiological and psychological stressors – often referred to as dual stressors. These dual stressors activate physiological responses to stress that ultimately drive inflammation, the underlying cause of many chronic diseases, including atherosclerosis, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and dementia. Many people in high-stress occupations also work long or irregular hours and may have poor or inconsistent dietary patterns.
Sauna bathing exposes the body to extreme heat. This exposure – a form of stress – increases the body’s core temperature and activates a wide array of protective mechanisms that work together to condition the body for future stressors, a biological phenomenon known as hormesis. Hormesis is a compensatory defense response to a stressor that is disproportionate to the stressor’s magnitude.
The mechanisms that drive the effects of sauna bathing include activation of heat shock proteins and pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines; decreased blood pressure and arterial stiffness; and multiple improvements in cardiovascular function. Sauna bathing also improves several aspects of metabolic function, primarily via activation of adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase (AMPK), a master regulator of cellular energy homeostasis. AMPK activation influences gene expression and inhibits cellular processes that drive oxidative stress.
The findings summarized in this review suggest that sauna bathing shows promise as a strategy to ameliorate the harmful effects of the dual stressors experienced by people working in high-stress occupations. Learn more about sauna bathing in our overview article.