I'm not completely deranged about health and fitness; I just like to feel good. Yes, I do write for a well-being and lifestyle blog. Yes, I also do listen to Joe Rogan and subscribe to his ideas about supplementation and living life in a healthy, sustainable way. And of course, I like to spend my Sunday mornings fresh-faced with a healthy breakfast or morning walk.
The fact is, I do none of these things for my body. Not really. I do them for my mental health. One of my rituals is to spend a couple of hours every week in a Sauna, Steam Room, Hot-tub and follow each with a cold shower. I tend to do this after my gym session but, you may think I am crazy for saying this, I do it sometimes on a Saturday night as entertainment.
If you're able to put aside the obvious preconceptions about my mental health, i can tell you for certain that I have never been fitter, physically, or mentally in my life. Generally, I am made very happy by this routine.
So it going to me thinking about writing this post: What are the benefits of a Sauna or a steam room - and which one is better?
The Benefits of a Sauna (and cold plunge pool)
The sauna certainly isn't a new thing. There is no clear evidence as to where exactly the idea of a sauna originated but it can be narrowed down to northern Europe, where there is evidence of traditional use still today. Russia, Finland, Latvia and Estonia all have strong roots in warming up in a Sauna.
Traditionally the room would be heated by firing wood and using a small spoon of water to increase the humidity slightly, or trees such as eucalyptus. These days you're more likely to go into an electric sauna or infrared. The Temperature in a sauna is typically between 60 and 80 degrees C - and it is advised that you cycle in 15-minute intervals to ensure that your core temperature does not get too hot. A sauna offers a dry heat at roughly 20% humidity - so you feel more direct heat.
The benefits sauna use (backed by research) are:
- Improves circulation, cardiovascular health and performance and lowers congestive heart failure.
- Improves lung health, reduces symptoms of Asthma (I can confirm that) and increase exercise tolerance.
- Reduction in oxidative stress can relieve chronic pain and chronic fatigue
- Boosts recovery from exercise and improves muscle development
The sauna benefits you don't need to be backed with science
- Reduces Stress, anxiety and depression
- Rejuvenates your skin & improves skin health
- Enhances Pleasure
- Improved Sleep
- Makes you feel ALIVE
I think that it is clear to say that a sauna session has quite a few benefits. I myself have had a lot of issues with my lungs over the years, and I have been diagnosed with a bunch of unhelpful conditions caused by allergic/ mistreated asthma. Since starting a membership with my current gym I have found my breathing to be substantially better - and I need to use my inhaler way less than previously. In saying that, don't decide to stop your medication and replace it with a sauna. That would be silly.
I also have to say that how I feel in myself has improved vastly - I feel less stressed, more positive, more relaxed, more productive and generally happier in myself. I find that the main benefit of a sauna for me is being able to take some time to myself, enjoy the warmth, sweat a little and come back feeling blissful.
There are a few myths to dispel here too: unfortunately, the sweating in the sauna does not detoxify the body. While it is pretty good for your skin, it is unlikely that you can 'sweat out' the night before as substances like alcohol and heavy metals are processed by your liver and kidneys. Secondly, it is unlikely that being in a sauna can help to promote real, long term weight loss; what you're loosing is a significant amount of water. So, what you lose in weight, you gain in severe dehydration.
The benefits of a Hot Sauna and Cold Plunge Pool
You may have seen a few LA celebrities share a trend (called the hot sauna cold plunge) where they stay in a very hot sauna and cool off in an ice-cold plunge pool. This cycle of hot and cold is not some new health gimmick but is a practice that has been around for generations; it is sometimes called the 'nordic cycle'. In the cold, cold nordic winter, it is common to jump into a frozen lake after being in the sauna. Particularly in Russia, the practice of hot sauna cold plunge would include several rounds of hot and cold with a generous helping of vodka. It was thought to relax the body, rather than having any meaningful health benefits.
From personal experience, I can attest to how amazing it feels, yet the health benefits are not fully understood.
In theory, what is happening is a small form of 'cold shock'. The body gets a fright and drastically increases the blood pressure and triggers the vessels to constrict. It is best to relax in the cold and focus on keeping your breathing smooth. The effects are both physical and psychological.
Most people don't have a frozen lake in their back garden so a bin full of ice will do... or a cold shower.
The benefits of the hot sauna cold plunge cycle are said to be:
- Increase cardiovascular fitness and health
- Improved skin health
- Triggering of the lymphatic system allows you to 'detoxify'
If you have a heart condition or you're pregnant, you should certainly be careful and speak to a medical professional before doing anything quite so extreme.
Benefits of a Steam Room
A steam room, although having similar benefits, is different to a sauna in the fact that it has an increased level of humidity; up to 100%. A steam room is thought to have originated from Turkey, but there is conflicting evidence. What we know is that different places around the world, do a steam room a little differently. Usually, the steam is scented with essential oils like eucalyptus, peppermint or olive.
Usually, a steam room's temperature sits at roughly 40 degrees C but it feels significantly hotter due to the level of humidity.
What you notice right away is that the air is much thicker with water, and you can feel a wet heat that sticks to you. While the sauna may feel like you're dripping with sweat, the steam room makes you feel completely sodden. It can be slightly uncomfortable if you're not used to it.
The benefits of a steam room are very similar to a sauna:
- Improved circulation and cardiovascular health
- Reduced level of stress, anxiety and depression
- Boosts recovery from exercise and increases exercise tolerance
- Enhances skin health
- Reduces joint stiffness and general pain
- Reduces congestion and sinus blockages
For me personally, I believe that the steam room's benefits are mainly nasal congestion reduction and stress relief. Whenever I have a cold, or I am feeling under the weather, I find that it is much better for me to be in the steam room. The only downside I find is that sometimes the steam can agrivate my asthma and make my chest feel tight. This isn't so much of an issue but it is worth noting.
Sauna Vs Steam Room
To compare the two is all down to personal preference. A Sauna offers a dry heat while the steam room is a very wet heat: both as intense as each other but in differing ways. I feel as though the sauna is much better for the lungs as the drier heat seems to aggravate them less but the steam room is unrivalled in its ability to completely relax you mind and cleanse your skin.
Here is a summary of the differences:
- Dry heat: Usually 20% Humidity
- Usually between 60 and 80 degrees C
- Great for a 'Nordic Cycle' of hot sauna cold plunge
- Ideal for mental and physical relaxation
- Wet Heat: 100% Humidity
- Usually 40 degrees C
- Great for cleaning our your sinuses and upper respiratory system
- Ideal for mental and physical relaxation