Over the years, I noticed a common trait among the banya regulars: They appear to be more centered, serene, and calm compared to the average modern person. What’s even more interesting is that I also observed this mindset in people when they are not in banya but going about their daily business.
At first, I attributed this to the individual qualities of people. It seemed far-fetched to connect this profoundly optimistic outlook on life to the habit of heat and cold exposure. After all, we all met people who could withstand stressful situations more efficiently. Logically, this has to be connected to personality traits and therefore results from both natural predispositions and upbringing.
However, my personal experience needed to add up. It came to the point when I could often correctly guess if the person regularly goes to banya or sauna just by how they handle stress. It didn’t make sense that the number of stress-resistant people in the banya community is larger than in the general population. Why would it be? If you have ever been to Archimedes Banya, you know it is hard to find a more diverse crowd. Could it be that banya somehow selects people with this particular personality type?
A far more straightforward explanation is that the banya positively affects the personalities of banya lovers. However, although we all have heard about the benefits of banya for heart health and metabolism (and, if you need a quick refresher on this topic, please read this Banya Journal article), its effect on the brain is rarely discussed. Can there be some truth to the idea that banya makes us think and experience life differently?
Naturally, I needed to take a look at the scientific literature. Before we proceed, however, it is worth mentioning that the scientific point of view on the effects of banya is still in development. Researchers are currently conducting fascinating new studies to better understand banya’s impact on the human brain. The knowledge of the mechanisms involved is already deep but will likely expand further.
There are several ways in which banya positively affects our brain: activation of heat shock proteins, effect on opioid receptors, and release of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor.
Cleaning the brain
In a human brain, tens of billions of neurons are constantly at work, passing each other information through electric impulses. These brain cells are designed to live long and prosper – their life span is estimated to be over 100 years.
Unfortunately, the communication between neurons slows down or stops as we age (often way before we hit the 100-year mark), which results in a collection of symptoms we group into the a category of “neurodegenerative diseases,” including Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Every protein in our body has a three-dimensional structure. The protein must maintain the correct 3D structure to function as intended. When the structure of one such type of protein breaks down in the brain, the de-structured proteins form plaques. These plaques jam communications between neurons, causing devastating neurodegenerative symptoms, including memory loss, inability to perform daily tasks, mood and personality changes.
Luckily, our body evolved mechanisms that can restore the structure of proteins. Heat shock proteins, activated for about 48 hours after exposure to heat like the one we experience in banya, can “fix” the damaged proteins and prevent the formation of plaques, improving communication between neurons. Through that, regular use of banya reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. So, if you ever feel like banya “clears your head,” there is evidence to suggest that this is literally what’s happening.
Changing the brain
Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BNDF, is such a remarkable little molecule that when you learn about it, you can’t help but wonder why human beings did not evolve an ability to generate it on demand.
It is not only a growth factor that helps neurons survive but a molecule that helps adults grow new brain cells. BNDF is a crucial component in neuroplasticity – brain rewiring in response to changing environment.
As we age, adapting to the changing world around us becomes more challenging. Be it a pandemic, inflation, or stock market crash, it is physiologically more difficult for older people to accept the change because their brains are hard to rewire. Not being able to adapt causes more stress, a feeling of inadequacy, fear, and anxiety.
Banya fixes this.
Deliberate heat exposure results in the release of BNDF, increased neuroplasticity, and rewiring of the adult brain. There are fewer reasons for depression if your mind understands and can fit the situation you find yourself in.
(Conversely, although I didn’t see this discussed in the literature, the same mechanism can aid in learning new skills since this process also requires forming new neural connections).
Joy of life
Our bodies are remarkably skilled at maintaining balance in all things. Too much pleasure may provoke depression, while a lot of exerted effort and associated discomfort can make us feel euphoric (think of the “runner’s high”).
This ability of our bodies allows banya to help fight depression in a rather elegant way. Release of dynorphin, a hormone that makes us feel worse in response to a stressor, leads to the agitation you feel when you spend time in the steam room and want to get out. This, somewhat paradoxically, improves the number of endorphin receptors, allowing us to… experience more pleasure later.
It sounds too good to be true, yet scientific evidence and personal experience support it. Simply put, the discomfort you experience in banya makes you enjoy life more: sunsets become more beautiful, people seem likable, and food tastes better. The symptoms of depression disappear.
What was intuitively obvious from interacting with banya regulars is supported by science. Banya makes you experience more joy; it cleans and repairs your brain, helps you build new brain cells, and establishes new connections between existing ones.
I’m going to finish this article with one thought: If just these benefits of banya for the brain and mind could be packaged in the form of a pill, this pill would be hailed as a “miracle drug” and sold for hundreds if not thousands dollars a bottle. It also would likely put a lot of mental health professionals out of business.
It also would be much less fun.