Saunas and Steam Good for Heart, Chronic Pain, Depression and More
We know that “working up a sweat” is healthy when it involves being physically active — but what about the more relaxing ways to achieve that damp, rosy glow? We’re talking about saunas and steam rooms, both common in spas, gyms and hotels — and, increasingly, in private homes. They certainly feel good (especially for those of us suffering through a long, cold winter), but many people, including health practitioners, believe that steam rooms and saunas also have unique therapeutic benefits, including relaxing and soothing tired muscles… reducing chronic pain… detoxifying skin and bodily tissue… clearing out sinuses… even improving cardiovascular health.
Is there any merit to the claims — all of them or just some? Which is better, the dry heat of a sauna or the moist heat of a steam room? We spoke to Walter J. Crinnion, ND, director of the environmental medicine department at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona, and author of the book Clean, Green & Lean to discuss these hot health topics.
Wet or Dry — Which is Best?
First, let’s understand how steam rooms and saunas differ. The primary difference between the two relates to humidity. Steam rooms use moist heat, pumping water vapor through vents into enclosed rooms to create temperatures of about 110°F, with 80% to 100% humidity. Saunas, on the other hand, essentially cook rocks so that they emanate dry heat to an ambient temperature as high as 160°F to 200°F, with humidity that is only from 15% to about 20%. The dry heat allows for the higher temperature — moist air at that temperature would burn the skin, nostrils and lungs, and potentially cause the body to overheat.
According to Dr. Crinnion, both steam and sauna can claim many of the same health benefits, including improving blood circulation and strengthening the immune system by inducing a mild and temporary “fever” that stimulates antibodies and other disease fighters in the body. For most people, the difference is a matter of personal preference — some people say that the moist air feels restorative, while others find it oppressive. Some relish the dry heat in a sauna, but others say the aridity is uncomfortable.
Though the scientific evidence is lacking, there is lots of anecdotal evidence that the moistness of steam rooms provides at least temporary relief for people with respiratory problems, whether from a cold or flu, bronchitis, allergies or asthma. The high humidity seems to help thin and clear mucus, thereby reducing congestion in the lungs and sinuses. Some people also find that the wet heat in steam rooms soothes joint pain and makes their skin look better.
Sauna Health Benefits — a Hot Research Topic
In contrast, there’s quite a bit of research supporting the health benefits of saunas, so much so that Dr. Crinnion calls their dry heat a “wonderful therapeutic modality.” Here is some of the research…
- A number of studies show that sauna therapy is helpful for people with congestive heart failure and ventricular arrhythmias. Sauna sessions are the cardiovascular equivalent to a moderate workout, increasing cardiac rate and respiration.
- Among men who’d had a mild heart attack, studies showed that spending 15 to 30 minutes in a sauna several times a week reduced the incidence of angina and hypertension.
- A new study found that young women who spent 30 minutes in a sauna every other day over two weeks increased HDL “good” cholesterol and slightly decreased LDL “bad” cholesterol, pointing to its value in supporting heart health for other populations as well.
Dr. Crinnion told me that he believes saunas also are helpful as an ancillary therapy in eliminating toxins for people with a range of conditions, including toxin-associated cancers… heavy metal toxicity (lead or mercury poisoning)… chronic neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease or ALS… and autoimmune diseases. For such patients, he often prescribes intense sauna therapy, typically a half-hour to an hour twice weekly for multiple weeks.
Safe Use Guidelines
Whichever you prefer, steam or sauna, Dr. Crinnion said it’s smart to check with your doctor before using either — and that’s imperative if you have any type of medical condition. Note: Pregnant women and people with aortic valve stenosis should avoid both steam and sauna.
Because they increase sweating, both steam and sauna can be dehydrating. Avoid alcohol for at least a few hours before and afterward, and drink plenty of fluids — eight ounces for every 15 minutes of time spent in the heat. This is especially important for people taking antibiotics or blood pressure medications, both of which are dehydrating.
The maximum amount of time advised for steam rooms is no more than 20 minutes, while sauna sessions routinely run up to 30 minutes (the dry heat doesn’t raise the body temperature so quickly).
And one more caveat — any public place can harbor pathogens, but steam rooms in particular can breed an abundance of microbes and fungi. Protect yourself by wearing flip-flops or shower shoes and, whether you are heading into a steam room or sauna, remember the towel to sit on — for your own protection and as a courtesy to other users.
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