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What Is Heat Stress?

Saunas are thought to be places of deep relaxation – so why is heat stress considered to be an integral part of an optimized sauna experience? Heat stress sounds like the antithesis of a relaxing time. What is the difference between unhealthy stress and beneficial stress?

Let us pull the curtain back and find out exactly what heat stress is, and how it can benefit human physiology. What is the correlation between the heat stress that occurs in the sauna and the plethora of health benefits associated with regular sauna bathing?

By uncovering the meaning of hormesis (as a general concept), a gateway is opened to understanding the benefits of intentional and timed physical stress on the body. Eventually, with a little exploration into positive stress, it begins to be apparent why heat stress is an important part of creating an optimal internal and healthy environment within the body.

What Is Healthy Stress Versus Unhealthy Forms Of Stress: Understanding Hormesis

What are some examples of hormesis?

  • Exercise (provided it is not overdone)
  • Certain breathing techniques (holotropic breathing)
  • Active types of yoga (power yoga)
  • Cold plunges or icing a region after injury
  • Heat therapies
  • Physical therapies

There are times when deliberate stress is placed upon the physical body for a measured duration or quantity of time in order to open up new genetic pathways that eventually lead to resiliency and relaxation. The word to understand in this context, (for those familiar with the biology lab will already know) is hormesis. 

The word hormesis is used regularly by ‘biohackers’ or a range of individuals involved in promoting tricks and practices on the internet to sell products, as well as by real biologists. It is important to understand the essence of hormesis: In short, it is a ‘healthy’ kind of intentional stress placed on the body so that the end result is one that is highly positive for the body.

Many activities will fall under the auspice of hormesis, for example exercise (if it is not overdone), cold therapies, heat therapy, acupuncture, active yoga, physical therapy, icing an injury, and the list goes on. 

There are many ways that medicine uses intentional stress to help heal and even relax the body, including the use of saunas, steam rooms, and even hot baths. These modalities would fall under the category of ‘Heat Stress’.

According to research performed and published by NIH in a journal entitled “Hormesis Defined”:

“In the fields of biology and medicine hormesis is defined as an adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate (usually intermittent) stress.” (1)

If you are interested in reading in more detail about the evolutionary process of hormetic factors , then click on the link at the bottom of this article for the full publication of the aforementioned journal. 

By understanding the adaptive nature of the body to positive stress, we can begin to understand how heat stress is entirely different from other types of stress that deplete the body.

What Is Unhealthy Stress?

  • Abuse of drugs and alcohol
  • Trauma and traumatic experiences
  • Traffic
  • Lack of Finances
  • Toxic relationships
  • Divorce
  • Death of a loved one
  • Excessive exercise
  • Injury
  • Autoimmune Disorders
  • Poverty
  • Abuse……

In short, life can and will be stressful. How can we mitigate the external stresses in our life that deplete the body? When anxiety is high and an individual is in a state of hypervigilance, eventually disease will appear in the body.

It is impossible to control external factors, such as the heartache of the death of a loved one, divorce, loss of job, etc, however, by engaging regularly in hormesis through a variety of modalities, it becomes possible to offset the negative influences of typical stress in our life.  

Among many modalities that an individual can use to offset the negative effects of stress in their daily lives is heat stress. Heat stress can be induced using saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs, and even hot bathes.

Why Is Heat Stress Important For Your Health?

An excellent example of heat stress is the use of saunas regularly. When an individual is using a sauna there is typically a point right before perspiration that is deeply uncomfortable and there will be an urge to leave the sauna and get away from the heat. 

At this stage in sauna bathing, dimorphan is released and the body begins a self regulation of the interior thermal temperature. It is necessary to reach that point of extreme discomfort in order for the dimorphan to be released. Without this metabolic action, none of the other positive biochemical reactions would begin to take place.(2)

Heat stress could be viewed as an analogue to the relaxation therapy, whereby an individual will clench their fist and then release – eventually moving through the whole body activating muscles and then releasing until states of relaxation are found. A little active engagement of positive physical stress followed by a release.

Heat stress is a necessary, and sometimes uncomfortable, experience in order to reach the precipice where a cascade of health benefits, including relaxation, are found during a heat therapy experience. 

Heat stress is uncomfortable, for a brief period of time, but shortly after this discomfort, a cascade of positive hormones are released: The antithesis to dimorphan are endorphins, which allow an individual to feel good.

A little bit of discomfort is necessary to create a very healthy biosphere within the body. Above and beyond the health benefits of hormesis in the form of heat stress it also trains the emotions and brain to face some of life’s incredibly challenging situations with a greater level of ease.  

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