Saunas for Performance and Effects on Heart Rate Variability
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Saunas for Improved Life
When the research goes into a lot of these so called biohacks, I admit my first goal is to debunk it. I go into the biohack skeptical and looking to see how and why it does not work. All too often individuals will buy the latest snake oil and claim it works because the manufacturer said it does. Even on many of the popular biohacker and fitness podcasts, guests on the show are owners of a company who tell the world of the amazing gains and feats one may make because of a device or ingredient in a product. Coincidently they sell a product, which contains this magical ingredient being the elixir of life; I can now conveniently purchase with some sort of discount code.
I had heard a couple popular podcasts on the benefits of saunas and by the end of the show, for a few thousand dollars can purchase one. Due to the amazing benefits of the sauna, I did my own research and found that I could easily build one at home for under $500 using products found on the shelf of my local Home Depot. If I did though, what would be the point?
The point is that much of the research is remarkable.
First there is a difference between steam, convection/ conduction, near infrared and far infrared. While each is different, they all work. Steam can be considered dangerous as the multitude of toxins, halides, metals, drugs that enter the water, are vaporized. Once they are vaporized one can breathe these substances in and over time, greatly suffer.
Convection/ conduction works by heating the air around you at extremely hot temperatures. This can be extremely expensive due to the amount of electricity it takes to heat the air for long durations. It can also be dangerous due to the set up and how despite the warning labels of not to add water to the hot stones, individuals often do dump water over the hot stones and as a result, over the electric heating coils.
Near infrared has multiple benefits such as it being low in electromagnetic frequency and it is effective. It has also been shown to eliminate body fat by causing adipose tissue to release into the blood and lymphatic system. This can be permanent when combined with exercise either during or post exposure. This therapy is actually offered at Functional Integrative Therapeutics (FIT) in Colts Neck, NJ. The only aspect of this type of "sauna" that makes it ineffective at times is that individuals do not realize the LED's must be right up against the skin. If they are in a ceiling for instance, the distance between the origin and target are too far to penetrate.
Far infrared has been bashed a bit by manufacturers of near infrared due to the fact they give off electromagnetic frequencies. This is a known environmental toxin present in all electronic devices that may mutate ones DNA to the point of cancer. What these manufacturers fail to state is that the amount of EMF's being released from far infrared is negligible. The frequencies given off are around the same as we as humans give off. It would appear the benefits outweigh the risk, something many fail to do in making many decisions but I digress.
One of the benefits of far infrared therapy sauna is that there is more regulation in heart rate variability. There is both a sympathetic response and more regulation of the parasympathetic system. This can be a huge factor in increasing human performance if the right protocols are followed. Working with a professional who is certified in heart rate variability such as Chantea Goetz, one may achieve more both on and off the field.
With improved parasympathetic functioning, one may experience more relaxed sleep, leading to relief of chronic tension and fatigue. This allows one to recover from environmental stressors and difficult workouts more efficiently allowing adaptation to occur and increased performance.
Ones cells may become more resilient as well. Hyperthermic conditions can prevent protein breakdown as it triggers heat shock proteins, which may then be used as a defense mechanism against environmental stressors. These heat shock proteins may also help maintain muscle during times of detraining or injury.
As the endocrine system is the largest in the body, saunas stimulate wide spread elimination of toxins through this system. This cleansing through sweat eliminates bacteria from the epidermal layer of skin leading to a younger appearance. There may very well be a reason everyone looks younger in warmer climate regions than in the cold north. Warmth and sweating may be responsible.
Sauna may also improve immune function and reduce incidence of the rhino virus or corona virus (colds) and influenza (flu). Less time being sick equals more time being productive.
While much more research is needed, saunas may help improve insulin sensitivity, which hopefully may lead to reversal of diabetes with a higher fat, no sugar lifestyle.
Sauna may also relieve pain. This occurs due to the hyperthermic conditions releasing noradrenaline, adrenaline, cortisol and growth hormone. These hormones are pain relievers. With an increase of growth hormone up to 16x normal circulating levels, recovery can be greatly enhanced. Naturally increased growth hormone levels not only is beneficial for recovery but for rejuvenation and anti- aging abilities.
Individuals also report greater range of motion after a sauna session as increased temperatures have been shown to increase flexibility of joints, tendons, fascia and muscle.
I leave the best benefit for last, which extensive research has shown increased vitality and longevity, even in those with a previous diagnosis of cancer. Individuals who spend 20 minutes in a sauna for 4x-7x per week reduce the risk of sudden cardiac event by 63%, 50% lower risk of cardiovascular death, and 48% reduction of coronary heart disease. These positive findings may be due to a decrease in blood pressure and increase in blood vessel diameter.
It would certainly appear that a daily 20 to 30 minute sauna certainly would be a phenomenal habit to appreciate such a wide variety of benefits, that improve human performance.
Rapid Weight Loss
Dr. Michael Brandon
The next topic involves losing weight, but specifically for competitive athletes in sports where weight management is a relevant variable. There are multiple sports where it is desirable to lose as much weight as possible to get an advantage. Anywhere from aesthetic based sports like body building, gravitational based sports like dancing, jockeying, ice skating, and then the most stereotypical being combat sports such as wrestling, judo, boxing and the like, which has had the most research done and will be the basis on the conversation today.
It's no secret to the way most people achieve this goal, which is from an acute and sometimes severe drop in weight in a matter of days, typically with the majority of it being in the last 48 to 96 hours prior to competition. Rarely is it done in a medically accepted healthy manner and usually involves intense measures such as complete fasting, running/cycling with heavy cotton clothes and plastic ware underneath, chewing gym to spit, the use of diuretics and saunas and more. The focus is typically involving depleting your body of food and fluids.
This method of weight loss is referred to as rapid weight loss (RWL) and is defined as losing 5% or more of your body weight within 1 week. With me personally weighing about 185lbs, 5% is approximately 9.25lbs.However RWL is typically started after diet and exercise changes have already been implemented to get to a low body fat in a healthy manner prior to beginning the arduous task of RWL.
In combat sports, approximately 60-88% of all competitors opt to do RWL to drop to a lower weight class to get an advantage over smaller opponents, with most losing around 3-5% of their body weight in the last few days, and some losing 10 to 12%; wrestlers and mixed martial artists (MMA) tend to be the biggest losers in this reguard. There appears to be no difference with gender or the level of competition, but those in higher weight classes (205lbs and up) are much less likely than their smaller counterparts to take on RWL, mainly due to the lack of need.
Before I delve too much in this topic, let me point out the obvious nature of this being a very unhealthy practice. Extreme dieting, severe and acute water loss, use of diuretics, etc, all can have some major health complications associated with it, though they do appear to be short term, but in some extreme cases, it has proven fatal. There have been a few rare reports of some non-fatal yet severe consequences like bowl spasms, acute organ damage, syncope, and the like. The biggest concern here involves the age at which competitors begin these RWL practices. Before the age of 14, it can cause stunted growth, both physical and mental, from the lack of nutrients and hormone changes during a time of typical rapid physiological changes and growth.
In the short term, it can cause decreased plasma levels, increased HR, impaired thermoregulation, and potentially increased risk of injury, though these consequences are more likely to happen to those novice in the practice of RWL compared to veterans of these methods.
So health risk factors aside, the ultimate question is, is dropping weight classes in combat sports actually worth it in terms of it giving you a performance advantage? Let's discuss the less thought about aspect first, which is also the one that appears to be affected more.
Mentally speaking, RWL causes some obvious short term issues. During this period, almost everybody succumbs to more anger, less patience, loss of short term memory, depression, and cognitive confusion. These effects all appear to be very short term however, and clear up within a day at most and appears to be based on the amount of weight loss, the time frame in which it occurred, and how well the recovery process after making weight goes. It does appear to be directly correlated to the amount of weight loss in terms of severity of mental side effects.
So okay, I hear it makes me angry, aggressive, and a little dazed, but will it help me win? The short answer which will be explained further now is yes, it does appear so.
In all levels of competition, from high school sports to the world champion and Olympic levels, those who go through RWL to make it to a lower weight class than their natural weight, is about 60% to 80% more likely to medal and win competitions. There are however a few performance based discrepancies that can occur. Losing as low as 3% body weight within 48 hours does appear to lower muscle endurance which is theorized to be from dehydration predominantly, but there is no affect on muscle power and strength.
A large study on collegiate wrestlers measured their grip strength, lower extremity power, and mood during multiple bouts of weight loss. What was found was a significant change in mood, but no difference in grip or leg power. It is important to note however, that the performance base changes such as decreased muscle endurance, only lasted up until about 3 to 4 hours after making weight due to recovery such as dehydrating, eating, and resting, as long as post weigh-in weight is about the same as it was prior to the RWL protocol.
For those that are concerned about either themselves or loved ones going through this dreaded process for an athletic advantage, it may help to know that there are multiple ways that the individual can help with health complications and well as agency standards to help limit the plausibility of people dropping too much weight.
Amateur wrestling between high school and college, have added a few parameters to make RWL simply inconvenient to deter its use. Things like making saunas, diuretics, and special re-hydration techniques like IV solutions illegal, as well as making shorter periods of recovery time prior to competition, using hydration tests, and setting an individual minimal weight allowance based on hydration and body fat levels at the beginning of the season.
On the individual level, one can do things such as lose weight slowly overtime without going more than 1.5lbs per week, minimizing the use of dangerous substances and techniques like diuretics and sauna exhaustion, or best of all, just opting to not lose as much weight.
So in the end, it can not at all be recommended to use RWL for competition due to the possible health risks, but in terms of will it help increase the odds of you winning, the answer appears to be yes. Though like most things in life and science, it may not be black and white and there are many unknown variables. The most likely is internal motivation. Perhaps losing the weight to fight a smaller opponent while retaining your skill, speed, power, endurance, and beyond is what helps one win, but there's also the fact that people who are more motivated to win, will do everything to achieve victory. Perhaps those that are willing to train harder, dedicate more time to practicing and learning to be the best, are also more likely to take the weight plunge as well which could skew statistical results. The cliche of correlation does not equal causation must be at least a thought for a possible cause in the weight drop to win ratio.
Many people have, and will continue to do so due to the statistical and mental advantages it may give to be larger than your competition. If done, as always, it should be with a competent medical professional and experts assisting in and monitoring oneself during the process. Certain personalities will do anything to win, even if it means doing straight up stupid things to yourself to try to be the best, which in all honesty, from someone who has done and will do this again, it's not healthy to do, but in the world of sports, if you want to perform and there's a biohack for it, whether its detrimental to your health, it will be done by some. So if you choose to do it, know your risks, and do so as safely as possible.