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When it comes to heat exposure, saunas as therapy, and hormetic stressors, there are few better people to listen to than Dr Andrew Huberman and Dr Rhonda Patrick. They are two of the most respected public figures in the fields of neuroscience and nutrition respectively and have built careers not only as researchers, but as communicators of modern scientific findings for the public good. These two scientists have spent much of the last few years publicly advocating saunas as a very effective treatment for those performing sport at an elite level, as well as for those merely looking to improve their general physical and mental health.

Much of Dr Huberman and Dr Patrick’s work focuses on how the chemicals and systems that pilot and regulate your body work in balance with one another. What theirs and others research have found is that you can’t just have the good feeling all the time, you also need a bit of discomfort to. Many people may have heard of endorphins – you might know them as the ‘feel good’ chemicals, or perhaps the ones associated with a runner’s high. There is more to the equation of our bodies however than just feeling good.

Dr Rhonda Patrick and Dr Andrew Huberman

Dr Rhonda Patrick and Dr Andrew Huberman

What Dr Huberman and Dr Patrick have recently brought people’s attention to is how saunas and using hormetic stressors to manipulate the body’s temperature produce chemicals other than endorphins that effect users’ experience of pleasure. Dynorphin, a compound that we could consider endorphins evil twin, is the chemical that makes us feel a lot less good; uncomfortable in fact. It is one of the chemicals associated with stress and discomfort and is released when the body is exposed to higher temperatures.

Modern scientific thinking has come to prove a relationship between the two chemicals that may be surprising: The levels of dynorphin that are released when exposing the body to the specific kind of low-level stress known as hormetic stress, can actually result in better absorption of endorphins when later experiencing pleasure. Given this relationship, scientists have begun to focus more on the relationship between the two chemicals and how when endorphins and dynorphins are considered two parts of the same system, the mutual effect on each other can result in effects that go beyond just feeling good and feeling bad.

It turns out that heat exposure results in a change to our bodies’ feeling receptors, and that in turn, changes the way that we perceive pleasure and discomfort. It has been proven that conducting regular sauna sessions exercises this ability, allowing you to pivot between these two states more fluidly. This flexibility can give you both a greater sensitivity to pleasure whilst also the ability to better tolerate discomfort.

Sauna Society Cornwall - Man relaxing in sauna by the sea banner

Consider the relationship between dynorphins and endorphins to be like the hinge of a door. The ability of a door to open and close without the hinges squeaking or causing friction is basically the ability of you to experience a full range of feeling; both to tolerate discomfort and to enjoy pleasure.

Does that seem like a lot? Well, that’s because it is. We’re slimming down what is rapidly becoming a major field in scientific research and trying to give you a decent takeaway of understanding. There is a lot more to read about this, so we’ll include the links down below, however the short version is as follows:

pouring water on the hot stones in a sauna

The research has shown that those individuals who regularly expose themselves to heat stress are 40% less likely to die of non-accidental death. Heat stress improves cardiovascular as well a neurological health, and broadly helps people live longer, happier, and more fulfilling lives. Just as how running can result in the feeling of the running high, exposure to different temperatures can result in changes to how stressful different temperatures feel.