Before they even became parts of a trendy spa service, saunas and steam rooms have long been used as traditional ways of improving wellbeing, addressing specific health concerns, and enhancing overall body functioning. The Romans had elaborate baths, the Scandinavians put up sweat lodge structures, and the Finns have been using saunas for over 1,000 years as part of their health rituals.
These people didn’t need scientists to tell them saunas and steam baths were beneficial for their health. Nonetheless, the tradition has continued because they felt the benefits for themselves.
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These days, research studies that have evaluated the benefits and risks of saunas and steam baths are plentiful. If you want to know these benefits, the facts and explanations behind them, and the cautions you must keep in mind when it comes to taking a sauna or steam bath, you don’t need to ask the Romans or the Finns. Just read on.
Benefits of Saunas and Steam Showers
Improved blood circulation
Because of the exposure to heat in the sauna and steam rooms, the blood vessels in the body open up more. Heart rate also increases by at least 30%, nearly doubling the amount of blood pumped out of the heart every minute.
The increased demand on the cardiovascular system makes the heart pump harder, much like that which you would experience after a brisk walk.
This increased heart rate plus the expansion of blood vessels leads to improved blood circulation, and blood flow is increased throughout the body. As a result, oxygen and nutrients are better transported throughout all body organs.
Long-term consistent sauna bathing has even been shown by some studies to improve performance in endurance sports, help decrease blood pressure in people with hypertension, significantly increase exercise tolerance, and improve the body’s oxygen uptake.
What’s more, better blood flow also wakens up even the tiny capillaries that supply the skin—those normally not nourished as much in moderate daily activity—contributing to that warm, glowing appearance you get after a sauna session.
Skin cleansing, hydration and rejuvenation
Sweating is the body’s normal reaction to heat. It’s an important and necessary mechanism for the body to maintain its core temperature when the outside environment is hotter than usual.
In a sauna or steam room, where temperature is deliberately increased, your body’s pores open up and on average, you sweat out approximately a pint of fluids for a regular 15-minute sauna session.
This cleanses your skin as dirt and grease are flushed out. In steam rooms where humidity levels in the air are especially high, the skin is not only deeply cleansed, but also abundantly hydrated.
Furthermore, dead skin cells are rendered softer and easier to slough off, so you go out of that sauna with rejuvenated skin that’s supple and soft to the touch.
Again owing to the body’s reaction to the heat in sauna and steam rooms, toxins and excess sodium are flushed out of the body through opened pores and the flow of sweat.
Although both saunas and steam shower cabins immerse the body in high temperatures, the dry heat and low humidity allowance of saunas allow it to be set to higher temperatures than the moist steam rooms.
With temperatures typically exceeding 70˚C, dry saunas cause the heart rate to increase notably and not only ensure better delivery of nutrients to all parts of the body, but also facilitate an aggressive excretion of toxic substances from the body.
Although the kidneys are the ones mostly responsible for clearing out toxins in the body, a good sweat is also another way the body can get rid of toxic substances, potential cancer-causing elements, and heavy metals such as lead, nickel, mercury, sulfuric acid, and cadmium.
With toxins successfully flushed out, the body is revitalized and left healthier and more youthful.
Calorie-burning and weight loss
The high temperatures of dry saunas can burn off around 300 to 400 calories per 20-minute sauna session.
This is because the body’s metabolic levels are kicked into high gear, and this increased metabolism means greater energy expenditure for the body. How does this all relate to weight loss?
Well, faster metabolisms and increased energy expenditure require the body to burn off fat and carbohydrates so it can get the calories it needs for all the extra work.
In addition to that, greater demand is also placed on the heart as it needs to work doubly hard to propel more blood to the peripheral capillaries found under the skin. Again, the energy required for the heart to keep up with the added demand on the system is burned off from the body’s fat reserves.
Several studies have shown that on average, a person burns up the same amount of calories as he or she would doing a 3-mile run or an hour-long weight training of moderate intensity.
Improved immune system function
Aside from their beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system, steam baths and saunas are also known to improve functioning of the body’s defenses against diseases, collectively known as the immune system.
During a disease process, the body’s natural response is fever; the elevated body temperature is the body’s way of fighting the infectious microorganisms that have invaded it.
Saunas capitalize on this disease-fighting mechanism by also creating an “artificial” fever reaction in the body, killing potentially harmful bacteria and viruses colonizing the body.
In addition, saunas further enhance the work of the immune system by increasing the body’s leukocyte count. Leukocytes, also known as white blood cells, play an important role in fighting infection and disease.
They are the body’s soldiers and pathogen-eaters, fending off microorganisms that may otherwise cause disease. Saunas have even been noted to decrease the incidence of common cold among their regular users.
Improved liver and kidney function
Improved kidney and liver functioning is known to be the result of two processes that occur in sauna and steam bath sessions.
First, because of the detoxification process that these sessions allow, the strain on the body’s liver and kidneys to do that job is lessened.
Some doctors even recommend regular sauna sessions for patients who have liver and kidney problems, to help reduce the efforts required from these organs to eliminate body toxins.
Second, the improved blood circulation brought about by saunas and steam baths also result to better delivery of oxygen and nutrients to these two organs, boosting their performance and resistance against bacteria and viruses that may inflict disease.
Improved respiratory function
This benefit can be derived more from steam baths than saunas, as steam baths involve high levels of humidity and moist heat that can work wonders to improve respiratory functioning.
Steam baths are especially helpful for those suffering from respiratory problems such as asthma, cough, chronic bronchitis, stuffed sinuses, and other respiratory infections.
Moist heat is therapeutic for these cases. It thins mucus and unclogs respiratory passages, helping patients cough up phlegm that would’ve been too thick to expectorate if not for the loosening properties of moist heat.
Aside from making mucus and phlegm easier to cough out, the steam also helps relieve inflammation and swelling of the nasal passages, sinuses, and throat.
Furthermore, such improved respiratory functioning can also be traced to the steam baths’ stress-reducing effects, since breathing problems are often a result of stress as well.
Muscle relaxation and faster recovery from injury
Saunas and steam baths are, in a sense, antispasmodic therapies. This is owing to the fact that heat causes the muscles of the body to relax, and also relieves muscle soreness experienced after strenuous physical activity.
What’s more, the opening up of blood vessels caused by the heated environments in a sauna or steam room also speeds up the healing of injuries and joint problems such as sprains, bursitis, and strains, as well as reduce muscle stiffness in cases of arthritis.
Aside from speeding up the healing process of the injuries mentioned above, the heat in saunas and steam baths are also beneficial for pain relief in such injuries.
Researchers have discovered evidence of saunas’ potential for better reducing chronic pain when used in combination with other traditional treatments. Sauna has been shown to decrease chronic pain more successfully than treatments such as cognitive behavior therapy.
Therefore, it has been recommended for the management of rheumatic pain, improvement of joint mobility, and alleviation of pain in fibromyalgia and arthritis.
The heat in saunas and steam rooms promote a sense of relaxation and relief from stress and anxiety. In addition to loosening up wound-up muscles and relieving soreness after a stressful day at work or intense physical activity, saunas are also known to decrease the body’s adrenaline and noradrenaline levels, stress hormones that cause you to be jumpy and can inhibit you from full relaxation.
Conversely, saunas have been found to increase the body’s beta endorphin levels, reducing the negative effects of stress and promoting an overall feeling of well-being.
What’s more, regular sauna users have also reported an improved quality of sleep that truly makes them feel rested and ready for the day ahead upon waking up.
Important Cautions To think About with a Steam Shower
A considerable amount of fluid is lost through sweat during saunas or a steam shower, so make sure you are well-hydrated before, during, and after the sessions. A glass of water should be enough before taking a sauna, and another glass afterwards.
If you’ve already adjusted to the heat and are going for a full 20-minute sauna, drinking water halfway through the session is also a good idea. Failing to keep well-hydrated can cause nausea, headaches and fatigue, so make sure you don’t overlook this caution.
Avoid alcohol, too much caffeine, diuretics, and heavy meals before a sauna session.
Do not consume alcoholic beverages before and during saunas, as they have a diuretic effect and may lead to dehydration.
Caffeine and diuretics (medications that increase urination) also contribute to increased fluid loss from the body, which may precipitate a negative effect if combined with the fluid loss already caused by saunas.
With regards to food intake before a session, a light meal is fine but a heavy meal is not advisable. Heavy meals immediately prior to saunas shunt a great deal of blood to the digestive system—which isn’t what you want if you’re aiming for improved blood circulation throughout your entire body.
Start slow and don’t go longer than 20min per session.
Your body needs to adapt to the high temperatures in saunas so the heat wouldn’t be uncomfortable, so it’s advised that you start out with brief 5-minute sessions first instead of immediately going for the full 20 minutes.
As your body gets accustomed to regular saunas, you can gradually increase the time you spend inside the saunas.
Go out if you start feeling ill, dizzy, or lightheaded.
Because blood vessels expand in the heat of the room, blood pressure can drop and may cause a sensation of lightheadedness in some people.
If you find yourself getting dizzy or starting to feel unwell anytime during the sauna or steam shower, leave the room at once.
If you are pregnant, more than 60 years old, or have any cardiovascular problem, consult with your physician first.
Because of the sauna’s effects on increasing heart rate, it’s advised that people who are pregnant, have cardiovascular or heart conditions, and are over the age of 60 (high-risk for heart problems) consult a doctor first before going for a sauna or steam room.
Shower down after the session and don’t be in a rush to dress up afterward.
Take a shower after your sauna or steam bath to rinse off sweat, close your pores, and cool your body down. Either lukewarm or cool water will do, but hot water is not recommended. After showering, don’t get dressed at once.
Instead, allow your body around 15 minutes of air drying so it can continue to cool down properly. Again, remember to rehydrate by drinking water or juices afterwards.
Aside from fluid replacement, it’s also advised to replace lost electrolytes through a salty snack.
Andrew Ellis is the ‘hands-on’ webmaster, content curator and Captain of the good ship Poshh Living. Father of one and master of none. Fitness, health and of course home improvement are Andrew’s key areas of expertise. Andrew has worked in many roles, from product designer to purchaser, for spa products, garden furniture and tech. Andrew is a really well-respected voice within these business circles