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The “Sauna High”



You’ve probably heard of “runner’s high.”


You’re also probably familiar with that feeling when you’ve finished your run or a taxing workout. Some describe the feeling as “pumped,” “blissful,” or “I could conquer the entire world.”


That feeling, that amazing feeling, is the runner’s high, or post-workout high. Beta-endorphins (chemicals that comprise the body’s painkiller system, or mu-opioid system, and block the sensation of pain) are released after exercise, triggering dopamine which helps you feel good.


But as you may know first-hand, the post-run high doesn’t come without much work and effort. Let’s be honest – in the middle of a long or challenging run, it’s common to feel extreme discomfort, borderline exhaustion, or even downright misery. In fact, all intense exercise has the potential to make us feel that way, as it acts as a stressor to our system.


Even though the exercise is a challenge, the endorphins and dopamine release make it all worth it.


Well, it turns out, we can get the same type of experience through kicking back in a sauna. And we’re going to explain why! (Hint: endorphins aren’t the whole story.)


Do you ever feel like your ears are going to burn off or your head is going to explode from the sauna’s heat? Or do you ever just feel annoyed, frustrated, or uncomfortable in the sauna, similar to how you might feel in a killer workout?


Due to the heat stress, dynorphin (an opioid and peptide that is the opposite of endorphin) increases in your brain and spinal cord. Dynorphin is responsible for feelings of dysphoria, or restlessness and dissatisfaction. It is also released as a response to exercise stress or other stressors, such as eating spicy food.


So, you likely feel discomfort when dynorphin is released as a result of heat stress.


But here’s the catch: the brain then upregulates mu-opioid receptors that increase the brain’s capacity to enjoy endorphins (happiness hormones) in the future. When endorphins latch on to your brain’s reward centers (opiate receptors), then dopamine is released, helping you feel amazing and boosting your motivation. After great dysphoria comes great euphoria, or what we like to call the “sauna high.” Over time, you’ll likely feel better and better with, or at least after, sauna use.


What words would you use to describe the “sauna high?”










Sources:


Ferriss, T. (2014, April 10). Are Saunas the Next Big Performance-Enhancing "Drug"? [web log]. Retrieved April 24, 2023, from https://tim.blog/2014/04/10/saunas-hyperthermic-conditioning-2/#fn-11990-46.


Narita, M. et al. Heterologous mu-opioid receptor adaptation by repeated stimulation of kappa-opioid receptor: up-regulation of G-protein activation and antinociception. Journal of neurochemistry 85, 1171-1179 (2003).


Rhonda P. Patrick, Teresa L. Johnson, Sauna use as a lifestyle practice to extend healthspan, Experimental Gerontology, Volume 154, 2021, 111509, ISSN 0531-5565, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exger.2021.111509.









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