A viral epidemic of global proportions summons each of us to take a closer look at our personal immune response. If there was ever a need to discuss what we can do at an individual level to protect ourselves, our families, and our community from invading viral infections, now is that time.
Although there is little anyone can do to stop the spread of viruses and their evolution into increasing new strains, it is possible to adapt and improve personal immune response.
Preventative care therefore, becomes the focused action of improving the biological response at the individual level to threatening viruses, particularly as there is often little that can be done to stop the global spread of new strains of viral pathogens.
When the world around us feels out of control and kaotic what can we do at the individual level to boost our immunity?
This article will provide the opportunity to explore the nature of human immune response as a system, correlative and causative factors that may deplete personal immunity, and how sauna use can potentially improve your overall response to foreign pathogens.
How Does The Immune System Function: A Basic Rundown Of The Body’s Defense Mechanism
The immune system operates primarily at the involuntary level, in fact, when all is going well, most will seldom notice its functions at all. The reality is that this integrated network of cells, tissues, and organs is working around the clock to protect the body from foregin invasion stemming from harmful bacteria, environmental factors, viruses, and even internal cellular mutiny. (1)
According to the National Center of Biotechnology Information’s journal on immune response, this system performs three basic tasks to protect the body:
- To fight disease-causing germs (pathogens) like bacteria,viruses, parasites or fungi, and to remove them from the body
- To recognize and neutralize harmful substances from the environment, and
- To fight disease-causing changes in the body, such as cancer cells. (1)
The immune system itself has two primary sub categories called the Adaptive and Innate. Both portions work together to ensure proper defenses for the body, and both are necessary. The adaptive branch of the immune system plays a critical role as we begin to ‘train’ our immunity through a variety of practices. (1)
Essentially, by micro-dosing controlled external positive stress on the body, similar to exercise, sauna therapy begins, like an athlete, to train our immune response into higher levels of performance. The technical term for this adaptive process undergone by any cell or organism is called hormesis. (2)
The process of hormesis demonstrates that through specific protocol it is possible to train immunity into higher levels of achievement!
Understanding the purpose behind the function of the immune system brings us to the threshold of learning the critical role that sauna bathing may play in boosting immunity.
Sauna Therapy May Enhance Immunity In Athletes: Study Reveals That White Blood Cell Count In Athletes Is Higher After a Single Sauna Session
For individuals looking to be performance ready on the day of athletic competition it is critical that immunity be high so as not to be rendered ill or depleted when it matters. The nature of competitive sports means that those individuals who are both well trained, and also healthy the day of the event are in significantly more advantageous position then their counterparts with lower immune system capabilities.
A study published by the Journal of Human Kinetics (3) followed two groups of healthy men: the first group were non-athletes and the second elite level middle-distance runners. A traditional Finnish sauna was used for the study. In addition to the heat of the sauna, participants also engaged immediately in cool down protocol by taking a room temperature shower for two minutes after sauna bathing.
After the sauna session a sample of blood was taken from both study groups. The results were groundbreaking in terms of sauna bathing and white blood cell count.
While both the athletes and non-athletes had higher levels of white blood cell counts after a sauna session, the results were significantly more drastic for the athletes. (4)
Sauna bathing for the athletes, not only produced measurably higher white blood cell count in general after sauna use, but also demonstrated remarkable improvement in monocyte levels (a particular type of white blood cell involved in the adaptive branch of immune response). (4)
What Are White Blood Cells And How Do They Affect The Efficacy of Immunity?
For those interested in developing better immunity without a background in medicine or science, here is a quick rundown on what White Blood Cells are, and why they matter:
- There are many different types of white blood cells: Neutrophils (make up about 50% of all white blood cells.
- Eosinophils (particularly important for fighting bacteria and parasites
- Basophils (only accounting for 1% of white blood cells)
- Lymphocytes (B & T Cells) (T cells are responsible for directly combating foreign invaders, while the B cells hold ‘memory’ for the immune system)
- Monocytes (Migrate into tissues to remove dead cells, accounting for about 12% of all white blood cells) (5)
As individuals begin to develop an appropriate protocol to augment immune response, white blood cell count (in its plethora of forms) becomes a crucial component.
How Does Sauna Bathing Affect Overall Immunity: Can Detoxification Protocol Enhance The Body’s Defense Mechanism?
“No person is without some level of toxic metals in their bodies, circulating and accumulating with acute and chronic lifetime exposures…An often overlooked route of excretion of toxicants is via the process of sweating” (6)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3312275/
The stark reality is that, without exception, all of us absorb potentially harmful pathogens through the food we eat, air we breathe, and water we drink. As a result of these circumstances we find ourselves in on a regular basis, the immune system is summoned to respond by not only threatening foreign pathogens from outside the body, but also to potentially harmful substances inside the body.
A 2013 journal published by the National Institute of Health describes how compounds such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, demonstrate toxic effects on a variety of physiological systems, including the immune system (6). Furthermore, all of these harmful substances are easily and measurably extracted from the body through the process of sweating.
Regular sauna bathing may systematically detoxify the body through the mechanism of perspiration (6). To reach the ideal threshold where sweating becomes profuse takes around 15 minutes in most people. By relieving the body of harmful pathogens through the detoxification protocol found as a result of sauna bathing, significant burden is removed from the immune system. This means that more available energy can be directed toward protecting the body from outside viral and bacterial threats.
For anyone working or living in known toxic environments, sauna bathing may increase overall wellbeing as sweat glands are mobilized to excrete harmful chemicals and metals from the body (7).
Fevers And Immunology: Saunas Capitalize On The Body’s Natural Mechanism To Heal Itself
“Give me a fever and I can cure any disease”Hippocrates
A fever raises the body’s internal temperature to activate white blood cells to line the walls of blood vessels. Like summoning a march of soldiers, once white blood cells are positioned along the frontier of blood vessel membranes they begin their attack against invading pathogens.
The act of increasing the core temperature increases the production of T-cells, which is why fevers are so effective in health preservation (8).
What if we didn’t need to actually get sick in order to reap the benefits of a fever? Well, sauna therapy has the potential to do just this. The creation of an artificial fever through the elevated temperatures found in a sauna may activate the immune system’s response. In response to heat, T-cells increase and begin generating heat shock proteins (HSPs), which are crucial to the maintenance of a healthy intracellular community (8).
Heat Shock Proteins: Why They Matter For Enhanced Immunity
Small, but mighty, protein ‘chaperones’ referred to as Heat Shock Proteins (HSPs) are essential to maintain the health of the intracellular environment. HSPs work in partnership with T-cells to activate the body’s defense mechanism.
Without HSPs, humans could not fight against viruses, bacteria, and even autoimmune disorders (9). From fatal illnesses and diseases to the common cold, HSPs play a vital role in protecting the body.
Dr. Gabriel Multhoff from the University Hospital in Regensburg Germany in the oncology department writes the following:
“They (HSPs)have been found to elicit a potent anti-cancer immune response mediated by the adoptive and innate immune system” (9)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16610364
The necessity of summoning more HSPs is crucial to the health of every human.
So, how can we get more HSPs?
Any thermal therapy, including sauna bathing, raises internal temperatures to cause the necessary chain of biochemical reaction to create more heat shock proteins. Whether the need to create greater immunity is to simply stay healthy through the cold and flu season or to fight very serious conditions, HSPs are a necessary ally in any health campaign.
You cannot get a prescription for them, buy them, or ingest them, however, HSPs can be increased through thermal therapy. In fact, they can be increased by exposing the body to extreme temperatures in either direction. For most, plunging themselves into icy water is less than tantalizing, but sauna bathing is often viewed as both pleasurable and relaxing – an enjoyable and potent means to creating more HSPs, which may translate in to a greater abundance of health and vitality!
Factors That May Contribute To Weakened Immunity:
- Anxiety (Mood Related Disorders)
- Lack Of Sleep
Depression & Anxiety
Can our mood affect our immune response? Yes, both anxiety and depression can trigger the autonomic nervous system into modes of ‘fight or flight’, and the activation of this response is the antithesis of the immune system’s response. In fact, as the autonomic nervous system transfers into sympathetic dominance (fight or flight), the immune response is suppressed (10). Individuals living with mood disorders experience weakened immunity as the autonomic nervous system is stuck in overdrive producing adrenaline and cortisol in response to signals from the emotional control center of the brain to protect against a threat.
Research led by Dr. Charles Raison of the University of Wisconsin-Madison revealed that individuals living with major depression experience remarkable relief from symptoms after engaging in heat therapy. Here is what the results from this experiment demonstrated:
“Raising the body temperature of depressed volunteers to the equivalent of a mild fever improved their symptoms of major depression for as long as six weeks after a single treatment” (11)https://medicalxpress.com/news/2016-05-body-temperature-relieves-depression-symptoms.html
Sauna bathing may relieve symptoms of depression. This is crucial not only for mental health, but also for immunity. Regular sauna use may help restore immune function for individuals living with major depression.
This study also revealed that anxiety, as well as other mood disorders, were stabilized with regular heat therapy. Remember that as mood is enhanced, the autonomic nervous system is able to transfer out of ‘fight or flight’ back into parasympathetic dominance where immune response is no longer suppressed.
A study conducted by Japanese researchers reveals the following result on individuals living with a variety of mood disorders, including anxiety:
“All mood scales and both manifest anxiety measure were improved after sauna bathing” (12)https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1744388107000850
Regular sauna use may both directly and indirectly improve immunity in individuals living with depression and anxiety. This two fold mechanism is effective in reversing the body out of stress response, and also by navigating physiology into an artificial fever where T-cells and HSPs become more numerous.
Sleep & Immunity
Obtaining deep and restful states of sleep is vital to the quality of individual immune response. This is largely due to the healing that occurs while brain waves slow down and the mind rests. Energy is redirected from accomplishing tasks in the contextual life back inward toward repair and nourishment.
The American Sleep Foundation writes the following on sleep and immunity:
“Without sufficient sleep, your body makes fewer cytokines, a type of protein that targets infection and inflammation, effectively creating an immune response. Cytokines are both produced and released during sleep. Chronic sleep loss even makes the flu vaccine less effective by reducing your body’s ability to respond.” (13)
How can saunas help sleep?
Sauna bathing improves the quality of sleep in two primary ways:
A) Relaxation occurs as the body heats up in the sauna, this serves to alter the state of the autonomic nervous system back into rest and relaxation. When the body is relaxed, the mind slows down and sleep comes easily. Excess amounts of adrenaline and cortisol keep the body active, sauna bathing will reverse the mechanisms that release these substances.
B) A decreasing internal temperature is necessary in the sleep process. This can be enhanced by actively elevated core temperature through a sauna session before bed, thereby rendering sleep more accessible(15).
The Common Cold And Sauna Therapy
The common cold impacts economic productivity to a greater scale than any other illness (15). While it can be difficult to avoid the virus that causes the cold while at work and school, it is possible to boost individual resiliency against it through regular sauna bathing. A study conducted by the University of Vienna in the Department of Physical Medicine concluded that: “…Sauna bathing probably reduces the incidence of the common cold.” (15)
Understanding the mechanism of white blood cells and HSPs in response to elevated temperatures suggests that regular exposure to increased temperatures, such as found in the sauna, will likely increase resiliency against the common cold.
Stress, Immunity, And Sauna Bathing
It is no secret that prolonged states of stress response renders the body more susceptible to illness and disease.
The amygdala, essentially the emotional center of the brain, in conjunction with the autonomic nervous system, can alter the entire state of physical being. If the emotional center of the brain senses a threat, real or imagined, signals are sent to the autonomic nervous system, and the entire body enters a state of survival.
This means that it is possible, through thought alone, to alter states of being. In states of survival, immune response is suppressed, as healing the body becomes less of a priority. If the body remains in stress response for prolonged periods of time, illness and disease have a higher likelihood of taking hold.
Critical to establishing a strong immune response is the ability to transfer out of stress response. There are a variety of tools that can help leave stress behind, and one of these is heat therapy. As the body is bathed in the warmth of the sauna, the autonomic nervous system begins to ease back into states of parasympathetic dominance (rest, digest, and relaxation). (16)
The Power To Enhance Immunity May Be Found In Sauna Bathing
It can be scary when bacterial and viral invaders threaten our way of life, often leaving us feeling disenfranchised and powerless. The scope of potentially harmful pathogens that exist in the world around us is daunting. One simple measure we can take to enhance our personal immunity to counteract these elements that lie outside of our immediate control, is sauna bathing.
Saunas are therapeutic, and may help to boost your immunity. The coupling of white blood cells and HSPs in response to elevated temperatures, is nothing short of miraculous. Further, the power of the sauna to invite relaxation into the body’s systems is necessary for the autonomic nervous system to establish correct states of being where the immune response can flourish.
Regular sauna use may reduce the incidents of colds, symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as improve sleep.
An enjoyable means of enhancing immunity could be a simple sauna session away!
- https://www.degruyter.com/downloadpdf/j/hukin.2013.39.issue-1/hukin-2013-0075/hukin-2013-0075.pdf (page: 3/9)