In a click bait world, it is not surprising that an increasing number of individuals report experiencing less ability to focus and extended attention span. In addition to individual experiential reports, the increase in clinical diagnosis such as ADHD, and other attention related clinical illnesses, it seems we are officially living in a world where it has become increasingly challenging to focus our attention for extended periods of time.
There are a plethora of pharmaceutical options available that promise to increase one’s ability to maintain focus and attention. What if this is not the approach you would like to take or you may want to consider a more holistic approach? Or perhaps a lack of focus is not so dramatic as to merit a diagnosis, in this case what can someone do to improve mental cognition?
It may come as a surprise, but recent research suggests that sauna bathing, in its many forms, creates a cascade of neurological changes that actually improve attention and focus.
Find out the science behind why getting hot and sweaty may help you to focus better!
The Importance Of Heat Stress and Brain Function
Brain function improves with assistance from two key hormones: Norepinephrine (both a hormone and neurotransmitter) and prolactin. Prolactin is produced in the pituitary gland and helps with the speed of brain function and plays a role in healing nerve cell damage. While norepinephrine improves focus and attention, its counterpart in improved focus is prolactin. (1)
Both hormones need to be functioning at an optimal level in order for cognitive function to improve. There are several roads that lead to better mental performance including consistent high quality sleep, nutrition, pharmaceuticals, and also, surprisingly, heat therapy.
So what is the correlation between heat exposure and improved cognitive function? The best way to answer this question is to turn attention toward a study performed on both women and young men over a period of six weeks who engaged in different forms of sauna therapy. The measured difference in increased prolactin and norepinephrine hormone levels was staggeringly significant. Dr. Rhonda Patrick reports the following on the two separate studies:
“When young men stayed in a sauna that was heated to 80°C (176°F) until subjective exhaustion, their norepinephrine levels increased by 310 percent and their prolactin levels increased by 900 percent. Levels of cortisol, a hormone commonly associated with the stress response, were slightly decreased. Similarly, in a study involving women who participated in 20-minute sessions in a dry sauna twice a week experienced a 86 percent increase in norepinephrine and a 510 percent increase in prolactin after the session.” (2)
If we understand the crucial role that prolactin plays in repairing damage to nerve cells and the improvement of attention span coupled with norepinephrine to increase the speed of neurons firing and wiring together, then it makes sense that a drastic improvement in their levels would result in improved overall cognitive function.
Moreover, high levels of stress from intense professional work experience, loss of a loved one, or just everyday living causes a decrease in attention. When individuals are under intense levels of stress the body secretes cortisol to drive hypervigilance up. In states of hypervigilance it is necessary for attention to span to many different outside stimuli.
Finding ways to lower cortisol secretion is imperative, not only for brain function, but also for the nervous system, and overall health.
High Stress Levels Lead To Lower Attention Span And Sauna Bathing Lowers Stress
For most individuals, life in general is stressful, added to this any traumas, or high stress living conditions will cause the body to release more cortisol to help maintain a level of vigilance for self preservation.
Unfortunately, the higher the level of cortisol the more the individual will begin to scan the external horizon for perceived threats. This self preservation mechanism means that attention and focus must jump from one object or thought to another. Consequently, the ability to concentrate on a single task can become challenging.
It can be very difficult to forcibly push the body into states of relaxation to lower cortisol levels, luckily a sauna can do this for you. By sitting in a sauna for just 20 minutes, cortisol levels drop and individuals will find themselves in deeper states of relaxation.
As a person finds themselves more at ease, concentration or focus on a single task improves significantly. The example of driving down a freeway may be helpful. While driving 60 miles an hour down a six lane highway it is necessary that the driver be aware of what is happening in front of them, beside them, and behind them, which means attention is constantly scanning the environment to ensure a safe trip. Add some traffic in there and a tight schedule, cortisol levels will rise and in doing so it will take time to adapt back to a space where focus can be concentrated to just one or two tasks.
While cortisol levels rising in the body can be excellent in certain situations, it is not great for overall cognitive function when concentration is needed. A simple and pleasurable sauna session can help lower cortisol levels and therefore improve an individual’s ability to focus on a single task.
The final factor that helps to improve concentration and overall cognitive performance are neurotrophic factors. The expression of brain derived neurotropic factors is improved with exercise or sauna bathing. (2)
Neurotrophic Factors and Heat Therapy: Sit Back Relax and Find Yourself A Little Smarter!
Sauna bathing in its many forms, including traditional Finnish saunas, infrared saunas, sweat lodges, and more all create an internal environment that replicates moderate to vigorous exercise. This produces elevated internal body temperature which engages the cardiovascular system.
Both passive heat stress as experienced in a sauna and exercise improve the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF). This is important for brain function because it promotes growth of new neurons. (4) Once upon a time it was believed that humans did not regenerate neurons, but more recent research over the past two decades have thoroughly debunked this myth.
If you want better and more prolonged concentration then improving the levels at which new neurons are made is critical. Improved expression of BDNFs positively impacts learning, brain degenerative disorders, and concentration for individuals with already healthy brain function. (4)
Dr. Patrick explains that“BDNF modulates neuronal plasticity and ameliorates anxiety and depression from early-life stressful events. It is active in the hippocampus, cortex, cerebellum, and basal forebrain – areas involved in learning, long term memory, and executive function.” (2)
Although the evidence is not conclusive based on current research surrounding heat stress through sauna bathing, it may be supposed that disorders such as ADHD, Alzeimers, and other brain related illnesses may respond well to regular sauna bathing to improve BDNF expression.
Sauna To Improve Memory, Learning, and Overall Cognitive Function
There is not always an easy quick fix for serious brain conditions, however evidence suggests that regular sauna bathing does positively impact critical biomechanics that directly affect cognitive function.
Here is the recipe:
- Uplevel hormones that improve brain function namely: Prolactin & Norepinephrine
- Reduce levels of cortisol secretion by lower overall stress levels to the central nervous system.
- Improve BDNF expression
The cocktail of these three biological factors can be attained through sauna use. A simple 20 minute sauna session three times a week may improve attention, concentration, and memory at the least. With more data and research it may be possible that regular sauna bathing, using this recipe, could potentially be instrumental in treating memory loss, attention deficit related diseases, and brain degenerative illness.
While the evidence is not conclusive, if any of the aforementioned illnesses affect you or a loved one it may be worth talking to your medical care professional and decide to include regular sauna bathing in your treatment protocol.
- Salbaum, J.Michael, Chiara Cirelli, Elisabeth Walcott, Les A. Krushel, Gerald M. Edelman, and Giulio Tononi. Chlorotoxin-mediated disinhibition of noradrenergic locus coeruleus neurons using a conditional transgenic approach Brain Research 1016, no. 1 (July 2004): 20–32. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2004.03.078.
- Kukkonen-Harjula, K., P. Oja, K. Laustiola, I. Vuori, J. Jolkkonen, S. Siitonen, and H. Vapaatalo. Haemodynamic and hormonal responses to heat exposure in a Finnish sauna bath Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol 58, no. 5 (1989): 543–50.