Health Benefits of Banya

On the one hand, I don’t consider myself a person who tries to organize all aspects of his life following scientific literature. Worrying about systems, schedules, and protocols in every aspect of my existence does not sound like an appealing way to live but a futile chore that blunts the joy.

On the other hand, I love to understand how things work. All of them: laws of the universe, mind, human body. I also noticed an important dynamic: the more (and deeper) I learn about the world, the more it integrates into my thinking and, through that, changes my behavior.

The clear evidence that I’m not alone in my respect for scientific inquiry can be seen in the remarkable success of the Huberman Lab podcast. Started by Dr. Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist and tenured professor in the department of neurobiology and by courtesy, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford School of Medicine, amassed 2.91 million subscribers on YouTube in just over two years.

While other YouTubers build sophisticated studios with perfect lighting and create fancy edited videos, Dr. Huberman faces the camera in his black long-sleeved shirt against a black backdrop, perfectly illustrating Bill Gates’ old saying: “Content is king.” With an unmistakable talent for teaching, Dr. Huberman discusses various topics related to neuroscience, anatomy, and physiology.

Ascetic setting, rich content.

In his podcast, he manages a combination of accessibility and depth that gives you the understanding that fascinates without sucking the joy of life out of you like a tedious college class would. This resonates with people.

Not long ago, I read on Twitter that Dr. Huberman has accumulated so much influence that he can recommend anything, and millions of people will follow. The poster concluded with a recommendation: “I hope he uses this power wisely.”

So far, he does. Late last year, I came across this tweet:

As an Archimedes Banya regular, I felt proud. It is exciting to see Russian banya become accepted in the American culture. I thought I’d return a favor and recommend the Huberman Lab podcast to all banya lovers, especially the episode on The Science and Health Benefits of Deliberate Heat Exposure, from which I offer some of my takeaways below.

Why is banya good? 

In 2018, a study was published suggesting that “sauna bathing” (the term the study authors used, which applies to banya as well) is associated with a reduction in cardiovascular disease deaths. The study found that the more you go to the sauna, the lower your risk. The group that went 2-3 times per week reduced their risk by 27%, and those who went 4-7 per week – by 50%.

The results are impressive, but why is this happening? As with many questions about the human body, the answer is complex. The simplest explanation is that banya works as a cardiovascular exercise, increasing blood flow, stroke volume, and heart rate, allowing blood vessels to exercise through dilation and constriction (especially when mixed with cold exposure, such as a cold plunge). But this is only part of the story.

Impact on cortisol, the “stress hormone.” 

In a 2021 study, participants were exposed to 4 sauna sessions, 12 minutes each, followed by a cool-down break in a 50F water pool. The researchers observed a significant decrease in cortisol output, a “stress hormone” associated with various illnesses if present at chronically elevated levels.

Activation of Heat Shock Proteins. 

Banya heat activates Heat Shock Proteins, a protective mechanism in the brain and body that rescues proteins that would otherwise misfold (changed in texture). The misfolded proteins are associated with a wide variety of diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

More information on protein folding can be found here.

Upregulation of FOX03.

Our bodies are constantly repairing themselves and modifying gene expression, turning parts of the DNA off and on and damaging them in the process. FOX03 are molecules involved in clearing senescent cells, contributing to overall longevity and health. For instance, people with an additional copy of FOX03 are 2.7 times more likely to live to 100 years of age or longer.

While we cannot get an additional copy of FOX03, we can easily visit banya. Turns out, exposure to banya heat increases the activity of FOX03, allowing for increased cell repair activity.

Impact on Human Growth Hormone (HGH).

The article from 1986 describes the effect of repeating “sauna bathing” on the HGH release. The experiment participants spent 30 minutes in the sauna 4 times a day. The result was a 16-fold increase in growth hormone, associated with increased exercise capacity and muscle mass, improved energy, and better aging.

Mood and wellbeing.

We have all heard about endorphins, the chemical that creates a feeling of euphoria (like the one you feel after going for a run). However, there is also a hormone that makes us feel worse in response to a stressor, leading to agitation and pain called dynorphin. This hormone is released when you are in the sauna, which causes the feeling of light panic when we “need” to get out of the heat.

Why would anyone want to deliberately experience the release of dynorphin? The reason is that alongside its release, the body also increases the number of receptors that bind… endorphins, improving your capacity to feel good. A 2018 study also showed a strong connection between going to a sauna and the risk of mental disorders like psychosis.

Banya protocols

Based on the literature, Dr. Huberman describes several sauna protocols. He is aiming for three 20-minute sessions every week, conducted after a workout or later in the evening. The choice of the late time of day is connected to the circadian shift in temperature. A drop in body temperature is needed for a person to fall asleep. Since heat forces the body to cool down its core to compensate, banya helps this process and promotes quality sleep.

Drop in temperature needed for sleep that happens overnight can be aided by going to banya in the evening.

Another general protocol is proposed by Dr. Susanna Søberg. She found that the average of 57 minutes per week of sauna exposure and 11 minutes per week of cold exposure improves metabolism and increases the volume of brown fat that breaks down blood sugar and fat molecules to maintain body temperature.

The research on the impact of deliberate heat exposure on human health is essential and exciting. And yet, it misses the crucial mechanism of physical and mental health benefits. We are social creatures; we need to be a part of a community. We need to share our enjoyment of life, have conversations, spend time with like-minded people, and enjoy each other’s company.

Accepting the idea of banya’s health benefits is only the first step towards realizing the actual value of what banya has to offer: the warmth, support, and the connection.

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