Recently I started going to the sauna after coming across a YouTube video.
It was an episode of health and nutrition researcher Rhonda Patrick’s “Found My Fitness” online show, and in it she interviewed a scientist about the mental-health benefits of something called “whole-body hyperthermia.” As her guest explained, hyperthermia entails gradually heating the whole body up to 101.3 F and then letting it cool down, which takes about an hour. This is essentially what happens when people do hot yoga, take long hot baths, and — most relevant to their discussion — visit saunas.
In a 2016 study he’d published in JAMA Psychiatry, her guest — psychiatry professor Charles Raison — demonstrated that this kind of controlled full-body heating could produce “a significant antidepressant effect” in patients with major depressive episodes, and that the effect lasted for six weeks. His conclusion: “Whole-body hyperthermia holds promise as a safe, rapid-acting antidepressant” with a “prolonged therapeutic benefit.”
The video was two hours long, and although I figured I’d skim it, I was captivated and watched the whole thing.
I think it was when Raison described hyperthermia as “one of the royal roads into human consciousness” that I paused the episode, suspended all remaining disbelief, and made an appointment at a sauna near my home. I haven’t been depressed, but it’s been an eventful year (a breakup, a new job, a new apartment), and I feel especially open to the idea that a trip to the sauna might be a new answer. I was also compelled by their discussion of the various ways that humans throughout history have sought out whole-body heating for fun, health, and spiritual transcendence: Group saunas, sweat lodges, rites of passage. After all, those monkeys in the Japanese hot springs looked so happy in that New York Times story (“Hot Springs Lower Stress in Japan’s Popular Bathing Monkeys”).
And so I started going to the sauna every week or so.
I’d been vaguely aware of the human benefits of sauna-bathing, namely that (as some small studies suggest) it can trigger the release of helpful and pleasurable hormones, ease rheumatoid arthritis, mimic some benefits of exercise, strengthen the immune system, reduce the risk of heart disease, ease chronic tension-type headaches, and — according to a study released a few weeks ago — raise metabolism. (Although too much hyperthermia can result in a heat stroke, which can cause permanent neurological damage.)
But according to Raison and his hyperthermia research, getting hot also potentially eases depression because short “hits” of stress — like a trip to the sauna — can stimulate and benefit brain tissue. And these short bursts of heat stress seem to make the brain better equipped to deal with other kinds of stress/inflammation (like depression, not that depression is always crisply linked to inflammation). Interestingly, as I read elsewhere, certain drugs can also raise brain temperatures, including some antidepressants, psychotropic medications, amphetamines, cocaine, PCP, LSD, and MDMA.
For my own research, I went to cityWell Brooklyn, a small “boutique bathhouse” that opened a few years ago in a neighborhood near my home. It was nice, although the best part came afterward, when I was walking home in the rain. The low-burn anxiety I’d felt about the things I wished had gone differently this past year just disappeared. I felt great. It was remarkable. For a little while it felt as if everything was fully okay. And I don’t know if it was because I was expecting it to, but something about this elevated mood did feel physical — for the rest of the night I felt looser, clearer, as if my brain had been released of something and lifted up to a slightly higher level. I responded to emails in a marginally more joyful way. Something akin to a “runner’s high,” but instead a sauna high? Maybe it was beginner’s luck, or beginner’s exposure.
Later I spoke with cityWell owner Liz Tortolani about what it is that people like about saunas and bathhouses. “They’ve been used since the beginning of time to help people feel better,” she said. “Your endorphins are released in the heat. Your immune system gets boosted when you go from hot to cold. Pain lowers. You sleep better.”
I was nodding along (we were drinking tea in cityWell’s massage room). “Imagine if you’re having a hard time,” she said, “and you were given a prescription to go to a bathhouse, a sauna, whatever, twice a week, to see how you feel — what’s the downside, you know?”
I do know. Her bathhouse offers a membership service, which a few months ago would have given me pause, but which now seems desirable and important.
After I spoke with her, I went out to the backyard sauna to interview a few of the members who’d recently shown up. I brought my phone in and made an awkward explanation about why I was bringing a recording device into a sauna.
One woman had recently run the marathon. “I’m recovering here,” she said. Another woman said she’d visited three times after first moving to the city, and that “it brought me back to feeling like myself.” A third said that she was grateful for the community of a neighborhood bathhouse since it’s not usually part of American culture. A man said that his time at the sauna had been especially important for injury recovery. “I’m a software engineer and I hunch forward all the time,” he said, “so I have shoulder issues and hip issues. Coming here, it’s almost like a miracle cure. It’s kind of nuts.”
Afterward, I put my phone away and sat alone in the steam room before getting dressed and coming to work, where I felt great for the rest of the day. A couple weeks later, I joined a gym that has a sauna, and I’m still eyeing the bathhouse membership.
It’s been fun researching the scientific benefits of sauna-bathing, although I think I like this anecdotal explanation the most, from a recent Cup of Jo post highlighting readers’ best breakup advice:
[My friend and I] spent the rest of the winter working out and using saunas and steam rooms. I heard [it] releases the same chemicals as you do when you are in love. It really, really helped.
As Tortolani told me later in an email, “if you find something that makes you feel better, even a teeny tiny bit better, keep doing it.”