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How Regular Sauna Use May Positively Impact The Aging Brain: Nrf2 Activation

Cognitive decline seems to be an inevitable part of the aging process. Even if an individual is not struggling with a specific mind-related illness such as Alzheimer’s Disease, the brain will typically begin to decline in function. Any investigation into the potential to age gracefully, or to reverse some of the biological effects of aging, will undoubtedly include creating ways to keep the mind sharp and perceptive. 

Aging does not necessarily occur in a linear fashion, bound by the progression of the chronological accumulation of years, but rather can be a dynamic dance. This dance  may include the reversal of certain gene expressions so that the experiential mechanism of the body is actually that of a younger biological compilation of molecular expressions. 

Sauna bathing may help in the reversal of certain age related gene expressions, or help to stall the onset of age related cellular degeneration. Specifically, as it concerns the aging brain there is reliable evidence that suggests that sauna use may be the catalyst to a host of positive brain related effects.

What are some of the major factors that contribute to the deterioration of brain function, and furthermore how can regular sauna use help to improve brain function as one ages? This article will attempt to answer these questions by introducing a lesser known, yet still, major player in the game of brain health:  Nrf2 activation. 

Oxidative Stress and the Aging Brain

So, what exactly is oxidative stress, and how does it affect the brain’s aging process? 

The symptoms of oxidative stress are relatively straightforward, in short, they are all ‘aspects of growing old’:

  • Fatigue.
  • Memory loss and/or brain fog.
  • Muscle and/or joint pain.
  • Wrinkles and gray hair.
  • Decreased eyesight.
  • Headaches and sensitivity to noise.
  • Susceptibility to infections. (1)

In more technical terms, oxidative stress is described in detail in a publication from the National Library of Medicine in an article entitled, ‘Oxidative Stress: Harms and Benefits for Human Health’. The below quote from this research is a more detailed account of the molecular activity that is associated with oxidative stress: 

“Oxidative stress is a phenomenon caused by an imbalance between production and accumulation of oxygen reactive species (ROS) in cells and tissues and the ability of a biological system to detoxify these reactive products. ROS can play, and in fact they do it, several physiological roles (i.e., cell signaling), and they are normally generated as by-products of oxygen metabolism; despite this, environmental stressors (i.e., UV, ionizing radiations, pollutants, and heavy metals) and xenobiotics (i.e., antiblastic drugs) contribute to greatly increased ROS production, therefore causing the imbalance that leads to cell and tissue damage (oxidative stress).” (1)

Living an average life, even one that is relatively health conscious, is unlikely to escape the clutches of oxidative stress on the brain. Most likely, it may begin with forgetfulness, brain fog, and eventually neurological degeneration. 

To maintain a healthy brain well into the later years of life it is important to combat the effects of oxidative stress on the body. 

Most folks have heard of ‘antioxidants’, and may have looked for such foods that are ‘rich in antioxidants’, to consume, or activities to perform. Antioxidants are the counterpart to oxidative stress, and will help to reduce the expression of its symptoms. 

While this article focuses on the effects of oxidative stress on the aging brain and how to potentially stall, or halt the aging process of this organ, it is necessary to look at what activities or foods an individual can take or do, to prevent further deterioration of this organ. 

The activation of Nrf2 provides protection against oxidative stress, as well as chronic inflammation (an underlying issue with most chronic diseases). (2)

What Is Nrf2 Activation?

Nrf2 is also referred to as NF-E2–related factor 2, and is necessary for the activation of certain gene expressions in order to combat oxidative stress and  its related diseases. (3)

Nrf2 is a protein that controls how certain genes are expressed, its activation is necessary inorder to protect and defend both the body and brain against harmful oxidative stress. According to the publication by Science Direct Journals and Books, Nrf2 activation is described as:

“A protein that controls how certain genes are expressed. These genes help protect the cell from damage caused by free radicals (unstable molecules made during normal cell metabolism). Free radicals may play a part in cancer, heart disease, stroke, and other diseases of aging. Also called NFE2L2 and nuclear factor (erythroid-derived 2)-like 2.” (3)

To be clear, further research on the matter is necessary as Science Direct does conclude their chapter on Nrf2 and liver health with the following statement: 

“Further studies are required to determine a complete mechanism of signal transduction  from chemicals/radiation to Nrf2 and the role of Nrf2 in cell survival.” (3) 

Despite the fact that further research is necessary to understand the detailed mechanism of Nrf2 it is certain that most individuals, young and old will want to begin a protocol that will help to activate Nrf2. The question becomes how can an individual easily activate Nrf2 safely and more poignantly how can sauna therapy affect the activation of Nrf2?

How Is Nrf2 Activated By Sauna Use?

“Heat stress from a sauna is enough to activate Nrf2, which then increases the production of the heat shock protein, heme oxygenase (HO-1)”  (4)

Here is the truly excellent news: Nrf2 is activated by the hormetic effect of heat stress, such as is experienced during a sauna!

The heat stress experienced in a sauna increases the production of heat shock proteins, which are essential in the activation of Nrf2. In August of 2022 Lifespan Extension Advocacy Foundation published a game changing article on regular sauna use and longevity. This article articulates the essential science behind why sauna use is so effective in activating NrF2:

“Once activated, it travels from the cytoplasm to the cell nucleus, where it regulates an array of genes with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and cytoprotective properties. This HO-1 then goes on to break down heme, a pro-oxidant, into carbon monoxide and bilirubin, which are anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, respectively [18]. The increased presence of HO-1 also suppresses the expression of a number of inflammatory molecules associated with cardiovascular disease.” (4)

Instead of turning to certain foods, vitamins, or beverages to find antioxidants, it is also equally as powerful to spend time in a sauna regularly to activate the magical protein NrF2.

A little bit of heat stress can go a long way to improving the body and also for the brain. The simplicity of spending a few minutes several times a week in the comfort of a sauna to activate NrF2, and therefore a powerful chain of antioxidants to combat age related brain degeneration is deeply appealing. 

How To Use A Sauna To Improve Brain Function In the Later Years

Regular use of your sauna is important, it is more of a lifestyle, than something to be used for the short term. Some doctors recommend the use of the sauna 4-7 times per week, for varying duration depending on age, as well as other proclivities. (2) 

The earlier you are able to begin your regular sauna care routine, the greater the impact will be on oxidative stress. If you are a minor or have children please read the article on how to safely sauna with individuals under the age of sixteen.

Also, remember it is never too late to start! The sooner you begin your sauna program, the sooner you will begin to see results on brain function. If you would like to know how to sauna safely as an elder, you can read the full article here: The Elderly and Sauna Use.

It may be possible to safely and easily access a means of NrF2 activation with sauna use, and therefore begin to reverse the effects of aging on the brain.  

Always consult with your physician or a medical care professional before beginning a regular sauna routine. 

Sources Cited


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