The heroes of our society are our first responders to emergency situations: They save lives, while often disrupting their own, they witness horrific incidents, and are always only a short phone call away at any time or day. These heroes sacrifice a lot inorder to be at the beck and call of anyone who needs them – unfortunately, it can be at the sacrifice of their own health.
Aside from the increased risk of accidents, encounters with harmful substances, and overall elevated levels of dangers while on the job, first responders are also faced with many ongoing internal disease and illness that surpass the average population. Saunas cannot mitigate the inevitable high risk job itself, however, there is enough substantiated research to suggest that regular sauna use may help to improve overall health for individuals working in the field of first responders. (1)
By virtue of the nature of the job, it is impossible to fully safeguard first responders from all hazards, however, it may be possible to provide recovery care while off duty using a variety of modalities, including regular sauna use.
This article does not purport to address all of the many afflictions that may occur during the lifespan of a firefighter, law enforcement officer, or paramedic, but rather points towards bio-medical peer reviewed published research that suggests that using a sauna on a regular basis may improve specific health conditions associated with working in the field of emergency care.
This article will not address any trauma, mental, or emotional health issues associated with working as a first responders.
*** A separate article is available to address the many benefits of sauna for respiratory health for firefighters specifically.
Health Risks Associated With Working As a First Responder That Saunas May Help To Improve
- High Blood Pressure
- Increased Incident of Cardiac Arrest and Other Sudden Heart Failure
- Exposure to Toxins
- Elevated Stress Levels
- Physical Demands On The Joints and Muscles
- Endocrine System Dis-Regulation
- Sleep Deprivation
As time passes, the number of studies demonstrating the precise dangers of working in the field of emergency response is increasing, and these studies are moving beyond on-duty incidents to illuminate the ongoing potential health hazards associated with first responder work.
Taken from an article ‘Understanding cardiovascular disease risks for first responders: Police Face a Tremendous Risk- What Goes Into It and What Can They Do About It’ published by Police 1:
“First responders’ endocrine systems operate at extreme levels. Think about it: With every hot call, altercation, pursuit, or high-stress situation, their bodies get adrenaline, cortisol and dopamine dumps. According to psychologist Lorie Hood, Ph.D., “individuals with high levels of stress hormones (specifically norepinephrine, epinephrine, dopamine and cortisol) are more likely to experience cardiovascular events, including cardiac arrest.” The glands that produce the stress hormones for first responders are continuously fatigued and burned out without the proper sleep, downtime, exercise and a healthy diet to recuperate.” (2)
Law enforcement officers are critical to a well functioning society and the risks that these men and women take on a daily basis can never truly be compensated for. It is pertinent to understand that in addition to other medical care and lifestyle choices, these individuals can engage in temperature therapy such as regular sauna use and cold therapy to help ameliorate heart conditions, as well as incidents of disease brought on by continued exposure to stress hormones such as norepinephrine, epinephrine, dopamine and cortisol.
Saunas may help to improve sleep, accelerate muscle repair, lower blood pressure, enhance heart health, detoxify the body, and persuade the autonomic nervous system out of states of stress response and back into states of parasympathetic dominance where the endocrine system can begin to heal.
How Saunas May Help to Mitigate the Increased Incidence of Illness in First Responders
- A Healthy Heart
- Improved Insulin Sensitivity
- A Means to Relaxation of the Autonomic Nervous System
- Muscle Repair
- Sleep and Circadian Rhythm Improvements
Improve Heart Health With Sauna Use
If an individual working as a first responder can find a way to get into a sauna for 20 minutes, 3-7 times a week, it may be possible to greatly reduce the risk of heart illness both in present time as well as in the future. (4)
Saunas are known to reduce the risk of all cause-mortality among civilians by helping to prevent the occurrence of heart disease. While it is true that the rates of heart failure are significantly higher among first responders, the benefits of sauna use to heart health remain pertinent and valuable.
Exposure to harmful substances such as smoke, as well as bacteria, and many other harmful substances is high among first responders, which is why finding a way to detoxify the body is paramount. Removing toxins from the body helps reduce stress placed on the liver, kidneys, and other internal organs. By using a sauna regularly, detoxifying can occur more readily by relying on the skin and the sweating mechanism for more of the detoxification work. (5)
Improved Insulin Sensitivity
Both law enforcement officers, as well as firefighters, are at a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes (6), which makes it even more important for this group of individuals to improve their insulin sensitivity in an effort to avoid the development of diabetes. A study published by the National Library of Medicine reveals that over a period of 8.4 years, police officers and firefighters were exponentially more likely to develop Diabetes compared to individuals working in clerical fields or in construction. (6)
An article published by the National Library of Medicine speaks directly to heat therapy and its role in insulin sensitivity: “Regular thermal therapy, using saunas or hot baths, has the potential to improve impaired insulin sensitivity…” (7) This same study also goes on to reveal that even if individuals do not have access to a sauna, but can get into a hot bath at least 3 times per week for 20 minutes, this use of thermal therapy may also improve insulin sensitivity.
Relaxation of the Autonomic Nervous System & Sleep Improvement
Underlying many of the health conditions that are faced by first responders is the continued need to go into a heightened emergency response. This in fact is the very nature of the job of first responders. Acting in an emergency necessitates the release of a litany of stress hormones. This is not necessarily harmful to the body if there is plenty of time to recover and slide the toggle back into parasympathetic dominance and allow the body to relax again, but many first responders are not prioritizing the need for this return to the parasympathetic state.
The ongoing need to draw the nervous system into sympathetic dominance and face imminent threat day after day, and year after year affects everyone differently. One thing is known across all individuals, though, it is extremely important that ALL first responders find a way to relax the body again once they are off duty. Instead of using pharmaceutical or other aids, it is possible to turn to saunas to help improve the nervous system’s ability to find states of relaxation. (7)
While the heat of a sauna will initially cause a positive stress response known as hormesis in the individual, the after effect will be a gliding back into states of relaxation. This same effect can be found in hot tubs, and even a hot bath if a sauna is not available.
In addition to relaxing the body, saunas can also help to improve sleep by artificially raising the temperature of the body before bed, so that the body can fall (drop in temperature) to sleep. (8)
Any activity that can draw upon the nervous system to come out of high stress hormonal response and back into states of relaxation and recovery will help the body to operate at its best when the individual is back on duty.
Muscle Repair & Recovery
For many first responders, an increased demand on the muscular structure of the body is required while on duty. Sometimes feats of unimaginable strength are required to accomplish the job, and while not every shift requires extensive muscular engagement, many will. It is therefore relevant to understand what the National Library of Medicine so succinctly publishes in this statement:
“A post-exercise infrared sauna session improves recovery of neuromuscular performance and muscle soreness after resistance exercise training” (9)
If at all possible, first responders should try to find access to an infrared sauna, or a traditional sauna, after a particularly muscularly intense shift. This will allow the individual to improve muscle recovery, relax the body, improve overall heart health, and even enhance deep states of sleep.
Easy Sauna Access for First Responders Should be a Priority
At present, very few institutions have saunas and cold plunges on site. It is our hope at saunas.org that we can work with firehouses, ambulance centers, medevac units, police stations, and emergency services offices to offer these proven therapies to the heroes that support our communities. If you are an active duty military, police officer, firefighter, EMT, or emergency services support provider, please reach out to us so we can help you gain access to sauna therapy at a discounted cost.
Living and working as a first responder will take its inevitable toll on the body, and while much of this is unavoidable, it does appear that bringing a sauna into regular use may help to mitigate, and/or ameliorate some ailments associated with the job.
We at saunas.org would like to thank the many women who work in the field of emergency care and hope that this article has some valuable information for you. As always, please consult with a medical provider before beginning a sauna program.
For More Information on Heart Health and Police Work:
“Law enforcement duties and sudden cardiac death among police officers in United States: case distribution study,” Vasileia Varvarigou, Andrea Farioli, Maria Korre, Sho Sato, Issa J. Dahabreh, Stefanos N. Kales, BMJ, online Nov. 18, 2014, doi: 10.1136/bmj.g6534
For more information:
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (Nov. 18, 2014.) Police face higher risk of sudden cardiac death during stressful duties.