In heated little rooms, Finns gave birth, American Indians experienced spiritual cleansing, and the Romans scrubbed their bodies after a tough day building the empire. We know them as saunas and steam baths, Middle Easterners call them hammam, and the Russians love their banya—all hot boxes that serve to ease stiff muscles, soothe away arthritic pains, lift the spirit, relax the mind, and cleanse the body. In India, ayurvedic physicians use heat in their panchakarma practices to prepare the body for cleansing by dilating the channels of circulation and enabling the toxins to leave the body more readily. Simple fact: Sweating is good for you, so why not enjoy a relaxing bath?
Choose your method
Within minutes of stepping into a sauna, you begin to sweat, but because of the dry air—heated to up to 200 degrees—your perspiration evaporates almost instantly. To keep the heat up in a sauna, you must splash the rocks with water periodically, which creates a burst of steam—boosting air temperature.
In a steam room, on the other hand, your skin drips with perspiration—like it does on a humid Midwestern summer’s day—and the air gets so steamy you can only catch glimpses of the tile-walled room that encloses the moist heat. Less intense than a sauna, the heat in a steam room hovers around 110 to 116 degrees. You needn’t do anything to regulate the heat, which comes from steam generators, housed outside the room.
What are they good for?
Moist or dry, both types of heat provide many of the same benefits. The skin enjoys increased blood flow (and a healthy glow), your pores get cleared of all the grime that’s settled in, and the sweating provides a deep level of detoxification. Spending time in the sauna or steam room reduces stress; relieves the pain of sore muscles, arthritis, and fibromyalgia; and allows you to completely relax.
It works like this: The heart pumps faster, blood vessels dilate, the skin turns red, and sweat surges. Pores open and the body drips in an attempt to cool down. Some experts claim that the skin acts as a “third kidney” and excretes, along with perspiration, small amounts of toxins such as mercury, copper, lead, and zinc. John Longhurst, MD, director of the Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, Irvine, recommends steam baths in particular for respiratory ailments like asthma, colds, and sinus congestion. A bonus for women: The heat often relieves menstrual cramps.
How to do it right
In order to reap the benefits, pay attention to these caveats:
- Don’t stay too long in a steam bath or sauna—about 20 minutes is plenty; otherwise you’ll lose too much fluid. Drink plenty of water—before, during, and after—to prevent dehydration.
- “Maintain self-referral and listen to the needs of your body,” advises David Simon, MD, cofounder and medical director of the Chopra Center for Well Being. “Steam therapy is not a competitive activity.”
- Mix it up. Some hearty bathers alternate heat with cold, taking a 15-minute sweat followed by a cold shower or a roll in a snowbank, then returning for another session in the heat. Be aware, though, that the sudden temperature shifts may be too much for your body.
- Don’t hit the sauna or steam room immediately after a grueling workout; cool down first.
Not for everybody
While a sauna or steam can work wonders, they do put some physical stress on the body, and not everyone’s constitution can withstand that. “As a physiologist and cardiologist,” says Longhurst, “I think that saunas and steam baths are good treatments for many, but one needs to be careful.” He advises against heat baths for anyone with heart disease. And, he says, it’s a good idea to be checked out by a physician to make sure that your cardiovascular system is up to the challenge. Pregnant women should avoid saunas and steam, as the potential for overheating can affect the baby’s development.
But generally, healthy people find heat—particularly in the cooler months—a lovely, soothing way to relax and rejuvenate. Heat, however, doesn’t work for everybody. The Chopra Center’s Simon explains that your dosha influences your ability to tolerate heat. Vatas or kaphas (both types prone to cold) benefit most from heat, while pittas (hot, quick moving) do better with shorter exposure to steam.
Shower first, especially if you’ve been exercising, to rid the skin of excess sweat and oil. Why? The salt in your perspiration could sting your eyes, while your skin’s oils can harm the sauna’s wood and make the surfaces in the steam room dangerously slippery.
- Take off your jewelry—the metal can get hot enough to burn your skin.
- Get all your paraphernalia in order before you enter (bring a loofah or a vihta, which is a birch branch or cedar bough, for scrubbing).
- Scoot in the door and close it quickly, to minimize the steam escaping.
- Bring a towel or two with you—one to spread out on the bench and one to wipe the sweat off.
- Don’t lie down—you could get light-headed as you sit up.
- If you are sharing a sauna, practice community-building manners. That is, make it a joint decision before pouring a bucket of water over the hot rocks to release a cloud of steam. Breathe deeply. Re-emerge into your day with a rosy glow.