Spending Time in a Sauna Might Prevent Menopause-Related Weight Gain

Research using mice found that daily heat treatment may be a simple strategy to stave off age- and menopause-related insulin resistance and obesity.

Transitioning into menopause is a natural process that comes with a host of unpleasant symptoms, including hot flashes and sleep disturbances. During the post-menopausal years, women are also at higher risk of developing osteoporosis and other health conditions.

Weight gain is another frustrating aspect of menopause. Research suggests that during the menopausal transition, women gain an average of one pound per year, with 20% of women gaining 10 pounds or more during this transition period.

Health experts believe that a decrease in female hormones, loss of muscle mass, and aging usher in metabolic changes in the body, leading to weight gain. Moreover, these changes make it challenging to shed pounds accumulated during this transitional phase of life.

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However, researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst may have found a simple yet effective strategy to combat menopause-related weight gain and insulin resistance, both of which can lead to health conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes.

The scientists presented their findings at NUTRITION 2024, the American Society for Nutrition's annual meeting held June 29 to July 2 in Chicago.

Turning up the heat on obesity

The scientists began their research by feeding older female mice without ovaries a Western diet that contained 45% calories from fat. Then, the team placed one group of rodents in a heat therapy chamber set to 104°F for 30 minutes per day for 12 weeks. The other group did not receive the heat treatment.

The study showed that "menopausal" mice receiving the heat treatment experienced less age-related tissue damage than untreated mice. Moreover, heat-treated rodents had less fat accumulation and were less likely to gain weight from consuming the high-fat diet.

What's more, heat therapy helped improve the rodents' insulin sensitivity and signaling.

The researchers investigated the possible mechanisms behind their findings and found that heat triggers several processes that signal the body to use energy more efficiently and burn fat.

Specifically, heat activates a molecule called TRPV1, which acts as a calcium ion channel in a cell membrane. This activation triggers the futile calcium cycling process, which stimulates higher energy expenditure and fat burning. The loss of fat triggered by this process is likely why heat therapy improves insulin sensitivity.

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"This series of events suggests that regular application of heat can mimic the effects of calorie burning and fat loss," said study co-author and doctoral candidate Rong Fan in a news release. "It could be particularly advantageous for individuals who find physical activities challenging, providing a relaxing way to improve metabolic health."

Though the study's results look promising, the findings are considered preliminary, as the research has yet to undergo peer review. In addition, the researchers used mice, so it's unknown if the same effect could occur in humans.

Are saunas safe?

Like exercise, sitting in a sauna increases the amount of blood pumped by the heart, allowing more oxygen-rich blood to reach muscles and other body tissues. Research suggests that saunas provide several health benefits, such as lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality and reducing the symptoms of health conditions like arthritis.

However, sauna use is not without risks. For example, sitting in a sauna can lead to a drop in blood pressure, dizziness, irritation of the airways, and dehydration.

Moreover, individuals with a fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia) or intolerance to heat may want to avoid using a sauna.

In addition, because of the potential adverse effects and the stress high temperatures can put on the heart, people should consider consulting with their healthcare provider before using a sauna. This is especially critical for older individuals and those with specific health issues, including low blood pressure or kidney disease.

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