In this blog post, I’ll explore the scientific basis for the infrared sauna mitochondria connection. Mitochondria are the “energy-producing factories” of your cells - i.e., the entities that create the energy to sustain life and thrive - and are foundational to your health.
As you’ll soon learn, the health of your mitochondria is essential for maintaining great health into old age. In this blog post I’ll argue that currently published science shows that by keeping your mitochondria healthy and plentiful, you can also improve your health and avert some of the inevitable decline in health in old ageing. But, before considering that infrared sauna mitochondria link, let’s first dive deeper into what mitochondria essentially are:
Mitochondria - Basics Of The Energy-Producing Factories Of Your Cells
In this section, I’ll explain to you why mitochondria are so important for complex life to exist and why you’ll want to keep them as plentiful and healthy as possible. I’ll accomplish that goal by breaking down very complicated concepts from evolutionary biology in simple to understand terms.
The “cell” is the main unit of account in biology in the same way that currency or money is the main unit of account in economics. In biology, that statement implies that the simplest of organisms and the most complex of organisms are made up of what are called “cells”.
Bacteria and archaea are examples of such very simple single-celled organisms - made up of only one cell (1; 2; 3; 4). One of the main theories in evolutionary biology claims that somewhere more than a billion years ago, two of such single-celled organisms - bacteria and archaea - fused together. That combination then allowed for the creation of more complex life.
To be more precise, different parts of the cell began to specialise in more specific functions. Over time, more and more complex life emerged through creating more and more cells within the same organism. The single-celled organisms of the past thus still lay at the basic of all complex life today.
Moreover, many different subparts of a human cells can be identified nowadays. These subparts include the centre of the cell with your DNA genome, the mitochondria for energy production and immune function, and the cell membrane that allows for nutrients and other compounds to enter the cell and debris to exit it.
The number, size, and quality of mitochondria are not set in stone, however (5; 6; 7). Through different mechanisms, such as environmental stressors working on the organism and therefore on the energy-production capacities of your cells, sleep, pharmacological interventions, supplements, and other methods, the number, size, and quality of your mitochondria are affected. Even psychological stress has an effect on your mitochondria, having the potential to lower energy production with chronic stress.
You might think: “why should I care about my mitochondria?”
The answer is simple:
First of all, the size, number, and quality of your mitochondria determine your energy-producing capacity in everyday life. If you’ve got very few and small mitochondria, you’ll simply won’t feel as good and won’t be as energetic compared to when the opposite situation is the case (8; 9; 10; 11). Also, it is estimated that 80%+ of the diseases of modern lifestyles, such as diabetes, cancer, and heart and blood vessel disease, are directly caused by mitochondrial dysfunction.
Simply put, once energy production goes down, disease risk goes up. Hence, keeping your mitochondria healthy is very important, especially as your age.
Fortunately, as I’ve already stated, the health of your mitochondria is not set in stone. Your environment, lifestyle, nutrition, and psychological choices (i.e. your “mindset”), all affect how your mitochondria age and your total level of well-being.
When you’re young, as a teenager, you typically tend to have tons of big and strong energy-generating mitochondria. With age, psychological stress, and poor sleep, the body has less ability to heal itself, and therefore, the ageing process, especially when poor health choices are made, results in mitochondrial dysfunction.
So, let’s explore what you can do to keep your mitochondria healthy into old age - and how to get even stronger and bigger and more plentiful mitochondria if you’re an already thriving teenager:
How A Sauna Benefits Mitochondria: Short Term Health-Enhancing Stress Called “Hormesis”
Before exploring how a sauna benefits mitochondria, I’d like to take a step back and explore an important concept.
That concept is “hormesis”. Hormesis signifies a short-term stressor on an organism, that almost always demands a lot from your mitochondria, resulting in bigger and stronger and more plentiful mitochondria (12; 13; 14; 15).
Many different strategies have a so-called “hormetic effect”. These strategies include exercising, whether it has a long-duration (running distances) or short-duration (sprinting or strength training), cold exposure such as cold showers and ice baths, plant compounds in vegetables such as “polyphenols” and much more.
Heating your body has a similar effect! And, infrared saunas are the perfect tool to optimise the health of your mitochondria. In the rest of this blog post, I’ll explore why that statement is true.
But let’s first revert back to the concept of “hormesis” and dive deeper into its understanding. More stress is not necessarily better, as organisms eventually break down and end up with poorer health.
The example here is really simple: if you’re exercising in the gym three times a week, recovery might be easy and you’ll probably get stronger and leaner over time. If you’re exercising three times a day, six days a week, however, you’ll probably get weaker over time, especially if you continue that pattern for long.
The same is true for ingesting polyphenols - hormetic stressors in plants - found in ample of quantities in dark chocolate, coffee, and green leafy vegetables. In normal amounts, those compounds are very much health-promoting. But if you ingest eight cups of coffee per day, five pounds of leafy vegetables, and two pars of 99% cacao-containing dark chocolate, it’s probably too much.
The same is true for far-infrared and full-spectrum infrared saunas: a few sessions per week, assuming your recovery is adequate, will dramatically boost your overall health. So, let’s explore that topic and specifically the biological mechanism in more detail:
Heat Shock Proteins And Infrared Saunas
Increasing what is called your “core body temperature” activates so-called “heat shock proteins” (16; 17; 18).
The “core body temperature” is the temperature measured at your torso, not your extremities like your brain, arms, and legs. Higher core body temperatures are a key in gaining many of the benefits of (infrared) saunas - and infrared saunas are the most effective way to increase your core body temperature, not traditional saunas.
“Heat shock proteins”, secondly, are thermometer-like substances contained in your cells that are progressively activated by colder and hotter conditions. Exposure to ultraviolet light from sunlight is another way you can activate these heat-shock proteins and is one explanatory factor as to why sensible sunlight can be very healthy for you in limited quantities.
As a result, activating your heat shock proteins on a regular basis helps increase longevity, aids in the creation of new blood vessels, and upgrades your mitochondria. The same is true for keeping your nervous system in optimal condition.
Unfortunately, the research into heat shock proteins is still in the early stages. In time, the mechanism by which heat shock proteins optimise your overall health will probably be better understood and more benefits on different biological processes will be found.
The reason I posit that finding to be likely is because, with proper use, the health-enhancing effects of activating your heat shock proteins on a regular basis are now almost universally positive.
Of course, I’m hereby assuming that you recover well from your infrared sauna sessions. Hence, monitoring your recovery after infrared sauna sessions is of the utmost importance.
If you experience better sleep, a feeling of well-being, and higher energy levels over time, you’re probably found the sweet spot in terms of supplying your body with a proper dose of hormesis. If you’re breaking down, however, and you’re not sleeping properly, you’re feeling less well, and you’re beaten down, it’s probably a sign that you’re not recovering well enough.
Why do I place such a heavy emphasis on recovery? Simple:
The repair processes of mitochondria mainly occur during the night time, even though it’s a continuous process. So, at night, the body creates new mitochondria, fuses existing mitochondria into bigger ones, and clears out malfunctioning and old mitochondria for new ones (19; 20; 21; 22). Decreased mental and physical well-being is thus a sign that these mitochondria-enhancing processes are not functioning at the proper level. Improved physical and mental well-being, to the contrary, do signal that your overall health is improving and that you’re reaping the benefits of hormetic stress.
Keep in mind that not all stress is created equal though: if you’re under lots of psychological stress, your ability to cope with hormetic stress goes down, and vice versa. So, if you’re ruminating about an important deadline for next week, or what to say to your mother in law, or you’re generally anxious, the body requires more energy to deal with that psychological stress. In that case, you should go easy on the hormetic stressors in your life, such as exercise, cold exposure, and infrared sauna sessions.
Psychological stress doesn’t have the health-promoting benefits associated with hormetic stress. Hence, you and I come back to the thesis that hormesis is a golden mean between too much stress on the one hand and too little stress on the other hand.
Conclusion of this section? Infrared saunas are a great tool to create bigger, stronger, and more plentiful mitochondria, if and only if you’re recovering well. Next up, I’ll consider the discussion about whether far-infrared saunas or full-spectrum saunas are your best option for optimising the health of your mitochondria:
Far Infrared Sauna And Mitochondria: Great But Imperfect
In terms of infrared saunas, you’ve got several options. First of all, there’s the traditional far infrared sauna, which, as the name suggests, exposed your body to “far infrared”.
The infrared part of the light spectrum is bigger than just far-infrared though. That infrared spectrum also contains what is called “near-infrared” and “middle infrared”. All three types of infrared have their own unique properties and health benefits.
If you want exposure to all three types of infrared, then a full-spectrum infrared sauna is your best best. So let’s consider what you’ll gain by adding near and middle infrared - to understand that perspective I’ll have to talk about mitochondria again.
The energy-producing process in your mitochondria is very complex and involves many different steps. In each of these steps, vitamins, minerals (chemical substances), electrons and protons can either increase or decrease energy production.
For instance, if you’re low on certain minerals such as magnesium or zinc, energy production is impeded. The same is true if you’ve got excess heavy metals - a toxin - in your body - heavy metals impede several steps of the energy-production process.
But, what many people don’t know is that certain types of near-infrared light can also make several steps of the energy-creation process in your mitochondria more efficient (23; 24; 25). By adding additional types of light to the mix of your exposure in a sauna, the cells in your body will function more efficiently and effectively.
Why does that matter?
All life depends on energy (26; 27). Increasing energy production in your cells and therefore the entire organism affects almost every single process in your body. You’ll feel more energetic, have more well-being, recover faster, age slower, and think better.
The absence of energy, on the contrary, when the body is unable to maintain proper cell function, is known as “death”.
Exposing your body to a whole spectrum of different types of light, therefore, allows you to enhance your overall health. For this reason, full-spectrum saunas are a slightly better option than far infrared saunas.
Also, this mechanism of exposing your body to light doesn’t exclusively function through the earlier “hormetic” or “stressful” effect. Instead, in this case, the light works as a nutrient, in the same way food does.
And there’s more:
If you want to further upgrade your cells’ functioning, you can also implement red light therapy in your sauna. Red light therapy provides your body with both red light and near-infrared light, both of which are non-heating.
For that reason, we offer a Clearlight® Light Therapy Tower to accompany your sauna and increase the health benefits even more. The Clearlight® Light Therapy Tower can be placed in both a far infrared and a full-spectrum sauna, dramatically enhancing the sauna and mitochondria benefits you’ll experience.
And with that statement, let’s conclude:
Conclusion: The Sauna And Mitochondria Revolution Is Just Getting Started
The exciting research on the effects of light and heat on human health is just getting started. Discoveries are made very quickly, and, the status of the science of how both light and heat affect health is nothing like it was two decades ago.
Every day, new discoveries are made on how spending time in the heat or cold can cut your diabetes risk, make your heart healthier, and improve your well-being. Your mitochondria are found at the centre of many of these processes.
And, science right now posits that 80%+ of lifestyle diseases originate, in part, because of some dysfunction in your mitochondria (28). Hence, keeping your mitochondria healthy not only makes you more energetic and feel better but are also the key to preventing many of the diseases that begin to plague so many people once they enter their 50s, 60s, and 70s. A high-quality sauna might just contribute massively to countering that tendency.
The future is bright…