As the air gets colder outside, you’re probably thinking about getting warm. But, just how warm do you want to be?
If you’re considering a trip to the sauna or steam room, we’re talking extremely warm — so warm that when you come out, you may want to fall face-first into that snow! That may be just what you need to feel better this winter because according to studies, getting a little hot and sweaty can be good for you.
Why Get Hot and Sweaty?
The idea that sweating profusely can provide health benefits has been around for thousands of years. The Mayans built sweathouses more than 3,000 years ago. The Finnish, too, have a long history with saunas. The word “sauna,” in fact, is the only Finnish word in the English dictionary, and it means “bath” and “bathhouse.” In that country, saunas have been used for more than 2,000 years.
The Romans favored their steam baths, which they started at the height of the Roman Empire and, as far back as 945 A.D., there is evidence that Russians enjoyed both wet and dry heat sessions. Native Americans used sweat lodges for purification ceremonies, prayer, and healing. In Europe, saunas were popular starting at least in the Middle Ages.
In every case, the saunas and steam rooms were believed to provide a number of different benefits, from easing muscle tension and promoting relaxation to “hardening” individuals to make them harder and better able to survive. In some cultures, they provided a social experience, as well. In others, they were part of religious rituals. That they’ve survived to our modern-day world indicates that they still have benefits to offer.
What Is Sweat Anyway?
The body prefers a temperature around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, so when you exert yourself or when the temperature around you rises, the brain tells the body to sweat to help you cool down and maintain that ideal temperature. Sweat glands in your skin make sweat or “perspiration,” as it’s also called, which consists of water and tiny amounts of ammonia, salts, and sugar.
The sweat then leaves your skin through your pores and, once it hits the air, it evaporates. As it does, it helps you cool down. Interestingly enough, sweat on its own doesn’t smell. If you tend to turn up your nose at sweat, it’s because it’s mixing with the bacteria on your skin to take on an unattractive odor.
How could this process benefit your health?
What’s the Difference Between a Steam Room and Sauna?
Before we go into the health benefits of sweating, it’s important to understand the difference between a sauna and steam room.
This is a small room designed to create heat via a heater (wood or electric stove) and stones. The room can get super hot, usually between 160 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit, but the humidity remains low, anywhere from 5 to 30 percent. The walls are typically made of wood and, although they are usually made to provide dry heat, they can also generate steam and be used as a steam room.
There is a variation on the basic design called an “infrared sauna” that uses infrared light to heat the body from within, rather than using the air without as a traditional sauna does. This allows the sauna to operate at a lower temperature while providing the same benefits. It does not use hot stones or water but generates heat from the infrared portion of the light spectrum.
These rooms are kept at around 100 to 114 degrees Fahrenheit, so they’re not as hot as saunas are. They are designed to be very wet with lots of steam and typically have an external steam generator that creates the steam and sprays it through nozzles throughout the room. The walls are typically made of glass, and the humidity gets very high — usually close to 100 percent.
Although both of these rooms provide health benefits, there are some differences based on the humidity. We’ll mention those in the next section.
7 Health Benefits of a Sauna or Steam Room
1. Relaxes Your Muscles, Relieves Muscle Pain and May Relieve Joint Pain
Because of the warming effect, both a sauna and a steam room can help relax your muscles and ease muscle pain. You may already use a heating pad or warm bath to soothe your muscles when they ache — a sauna or steam room can achieve the same effect but, perhaps, more efficiently.
Because relaxing tight muscles eases pressure on joints, you may also notice joint pain relief after spending some time in either of these rooms. In a 2001 study, researchers noted that “sauna bathing may also alleviate pain and improve joint mobility in patients with rheumatic disease.”
In a 2013 study, researchers found that both moist and dry heat applied to sore muscles helped relieve pain. That same year, they also reported that heat was beneficial in increasing flexibility and could help reduce injuries. In 2018, researchers linked sauna bathing with improvement in pain and symptoms of arthritis and fibromyalgia.
2. Boosts Cardiovascular Health
A recent large study seemed to show that people using a sauna regularly could have a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Researchers looked at a population of about 2,300 middle-aged men from Eastern Finland and assessed how often they visited the sauna during a period of almost 21 years.
Results showed that the more the men bathed in the sauna, the less likely they were to die of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease and any similar cause of death. More specifically, those who used the sauna two to three times a week had a 22 percent lower chance of suffering sudden cardiac death as those who used it only once a week. Those who used it even more — four to seven times a week — were 63 percent less likely to suffer from sudden cardiac death and 50 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
Other studies have shown that saunas can help lower blood pressure, which is beneficial for cardiovascular health. In one 2017 study, researchers found that those who took sauna baths four to seven times a week cut their risk of high blood pressure by nearly half, compared to those who went only once a week.
As your body temperature goes up, your blood vessels relax and get wider. Researchers believe that the more you “practice” this process in the sauna, the better your blood vessels get at regulating blood pressure. A sauna also causes your heart rate to go up, similar to the way exercise does.
3. Relieves Stress and Can Improve Sleep
Stress can play a part in many of our modern-day diseases, including obesity, heart disease, and cancer. It can lead to inflammation, which damages internal tissues and can encourage weight gain easily.
Scientists in previous studies and others note that saunas can help you relax mentally and physically, which could partially explain their positive benefits on the cardiovascular system. In fact, many people enjoy a good steam bath mainly because of the stress-relieving benefits. The heat helps the body release endorphins, which are “feel-good” chemicals that reduce stress on the body and may even help you sleep better at night.
When you leave the sauna, your body temperature drops, which triggers the body to release melatonin naturally, which is the sleep hormone. That helps you feel more relaxed and may encourage easier longer-lasting sleep.
4. Relieves Chest Congestion (Steam Rooms or Wet Saunas Only) and May Reduce Risk of Infections
When you have a cold or bronchitis, you’ve probably heard the age-old advice to breathe in the steam, either from a hot bowl of water or in the shower. That warm, moist air can help alleviate congestion, drain your sinuses and open up the mucous membranes, which can relieve pressure in your sinuses and head, potentially easing any headaches you may be feeling.
A steam room (or wet sauna) can do the same thing. In fact, they are often recommended to those who struggle with asthma and bronchitis. In one recent study, researchers found that sweating in a sauna at least two times per week could reduce the risk of deadly infections like pneumonia. It also reduced the risk of falling ill with asthma and other chest problems. Other research has found that steam baths can help improve upper respiratory problems and asthma symptoms.
Researchers tested sauna bathing on patients with obstructive pulmonary (lung) disease as well and found that it helped improve lung function.
Because the heat opens up your pores, it can help clear out impurities in the skin and give you a clearer, smoother look. If you struggle with acne, a dry sauna is probably better than a steam room as the high humidity in the steam room could clog your pores more. However, a dry sauna will encourage you to sweat out those impurities and, as long as you wash well afterward, it could leave your skin feeling better than ever.
Because heat encourages circulation, the skin will also benefit from the increased blood flow, leaving you with a healthy, robust glow when you get out. You’ll look younger and feel rejuvenated, all without having to get a facial. Some patients suffering from psoriasis also report relief from itching after using a sauna.
6. May Help You Lose a Few Pounds
Remember that your heart rate increases while you’re sitting in that hot room, and that takes energy. That means you’re burning more calories while you’re sitting there than if you were sitting in a room of normal temperature. Although many marketing claims exaggerate the calorie-burning effects of a sauna, you may notice that you’ve lost a pound or two with regular use.
Your body is also losing water through sweat and, because water makes up a good portion of your body weight, losing it in the sauna will help you feel a bit lighter when you leave. Keep in mind that you will regain that weight, although a sauna isn’t going to help you burn fat.
7. Boosts Your Mood
As noted above, the heat helps your body release feel-good endorphins, which naturally boost your mood. They also relieve stress, which can definitely get you feeling better.
Thermal (heat) therapy has also been linked with a reduced risk of depression. In a small 2005 study, Japanese scientists found that mildly depressed patients who received thermal therapy in an infrared dry sauna for 15 minutes a day for four weeks experienced improvement in symptoms.
You may worry that all that heat could hurt you somehow. Because your heart rate goes up while sauna bathing, it is recommended that you check with your doctor if you have heart disease or if you’ve been through heart surgery before using a sauna.
Researchers still believe that for most people, though, saunas and steam rooms are safe. In a 2001 study, scientists wrote, “Sauna bathing is safe, however, for most people with coronary heart disease with stable angina pectoris or old myocardial infarction [heart attack].”
It’s also best not to drink alcohol while in the sauna as it increases the risk of abnormal heart rhythms and hypotension (blood pressure that is too low) and can also lead to dehydration. Listen to your body too. If you start to get overly thirsty or feel dizzy or lightheaded, feel free to leave the room and recover.
Never stay in the room too long — limit your time to 15 to 20 minutes or less, particularly if you’re just starting out. If you take regular prescription medications, check with your doctor. Drink some water first and drink more after you leave.
Pregnant women are advised to avoid high heat and should always check with a doctor before trying a sauna or steam room.
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