Most people laugh when they hear that the Finnish Olympic team
lugs a portable sauna with them wherever they go. However, the
fair-haired Nordic athletes might be doing more than simply acting
out a home-sick longing for the slender birch trees and island
dotted lakes of the homeland. They could be on to a secret, non-drug-induced
means of giving themselves an edge in the fierce competition
of modern-day Olympics. Although most people simply consider
it a pleasant means of relaxation, sweat therapy might in fact
have powerful heath-enhancing effects.
In the test of time is any measure, steam bathing has certainly
withstood it. For thousands of years people of all cultures have
indulged in the soothing warmth of sweat baths. The Romans are
well-known for their elaborate baths. The wealthy of 200 B.C.
India did not consider their mansion complete unless it included
a bathhouse with a steam room. The Muslim Hamman, or bathhouse,
with its domed, central steam chamber is stall an integral part
of life in Muslim countries. A derivation of the Hamman, the
Turkish bath, has been popular in Europe for centuries.
Today, steam and sauna facilities are an integral part of the
hydrotherapeutic offerings at European and American spas, and
steam rooms and saunas are a common feature of health clubs and
public pools. Yet, there is surprisingly little awareness of
the wide ranging benefits of steam and sauna bathing. There is
evidence that these sweat-inducing treatments stimulate the immune
system, improve circulation, and help the body to purge itself
Hippocrates, the founder of Western medicine
more than two-thousand years ago said, "Give me the power
to create a fever, and I shall cure any disease."
Although often misunderstood as a symptom of
disease, fever actually is a part of the body's natural healing
baths, sauna, and other heat-inducing treatments elicit similar
healing responses in the body, and consequently are often called "artificial
During a fever, the functioning of the immune system is stimulated,
while the growth of bacteria and virus is forced to slow down.
The production of white blood cells, the primary agents of the
immune system, is increased, as is the rate of their release
into the blood stream. The generation of antibodies speeds up,
as does the production of interferon, an anti viral protein that
also has powerful cancer-fighting properties.
Apart from stimulating the immune system, fever slows down the
proliferation of invading organisms by creating an inhospitable
environment. At 104 degrees F., for example, the growth rate
of the polio virus is reduced up to 250 times; at 106 degrees
pneumococcus, a bacterium responsible for pneumonia, dies.
Before the advent of antibiotics, syphilitics were often infected
with malaria to prevent the spread of the disease. In addition,
there is evidence that the frequent fevers of malaria might function
as a cancer-protecting factor. Dr. Paavo Airola in his book,
Worldwide Secrets of Staying Young relates the story of the Pontine
swamps near Rome in Italy, which, until a few decades ago, were
a breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The swamps
were dried out, and the malaria disappeared. However, during
the next decades, that area, which had before been almost free
of cancer, saw an increase in cancerous diseases. After a generation,
the cancer incidence level of that area had reached the level
of the rest of Italy.
Malignant cells are selectively destroyed at temperatures of
106 to 110 degrees F., so the frequent fever attacks of people
in the malaria-infected area might have mobilized the body's
own defenses too frequently for a cancer to take hold.
Although the artificial fever induced by sweat therapy does
not have the comprehensive effect of real fever, it still produces
a striking effect on a number of bodily processes.
There is evidence that artificial fever works as an immune system
stimulant by increasing the number of white blood cells in the
body. In a 1959-review of studies on the effects of heat treatments,
Mayo Clinic researcher Dr. Wakim and colleagues cite findings
indicating that the number of white blood cells in the blood
increased by an average of 58% during artificially induced fever.
Researchers also have found increases in the activity of the
white blood cells during induced fever.
In addition, as in the case of bodily induced fever, the raised
temperature during the artificial fever reduces the growth rate
of most bacteria and viruses, giving the immune system time to
mobilize its own forces. Indeed, many regular steam or sauna
bathers have experienced that a good, long sweat bath at the
early onset of a cold or flu can help ward off the disease before
in manifests as actual symptoms.
Apart from the immune system-stimulating effects of sweat therapy,
many thought it as one of the most effective and painless detoxifying
Dr. Veronica Butler, medical co-director at the Raj, a health
center based on principles of Ayurveda, recommends herbalized
steam baths, called swedenas, to clients as part of the ancient
Ayurvedic purification treatment, known as panchakarma.
According to the classical Ayurvedic texts, for maximum results,
a swedena or steam bath should be given while keeping the head
cool and the client supine.
"A swedena clears the shrotas, the channels through which
the biological intelligence flows," says Dr. Butler. "If
impurities clog these channels, the flow of intelligence in the
body becomes more susceptible to disease."
Heat speeds up the chemical processes in the body, making steam
and sauna bathing one of the simplest and most comfortable ways
to rid the body of accumulated toxins. As the pores open up and
the million of sweat glands start to excrete, the body rids itself
of metabolic and other waste products. Sweat contains almost
the same elements as urine, and for this reason, the skin is
sometimes called the third kidney. It is estimated that as much
as 30% of bodily wastes are eliminated by way of perspiration.
However, more than common metabolic waste products are secreted
through the skin. Natural health practitioners often notice that
when heavy smokers get a steam bath for a body wrap (where the
body 'simmers' for up to 45 min. Under hot covers), they will
leave a yellow residue on the towels. Reino Tarkianinen, President
of Finlandia Sauna, reports that when the company replaces sauna
benches from public baths, a thick, black layer of accumulated
tar can be found underneath the benches.
In Finland, research is being done on the use of sweat therapy
in the treatment of people who are chemically affected. The purifying
effects of perspiration could also be behind claims that steam
and sauna treatments can help cur or control such ailments as
acne and arthritis.
Last but not least, steam and sauna bathing produces powerful
therapeutic effects simply by increasing circulation. As the
carrier of the rebuilding forces of the nutrients to all parts
of the body, the bloodstream plays a crucial role in the maintenance
Steam and sauna treatments have a stimulating effect on the
cardiovascular system. The pulse rate increases from 75 beats
per minute to between 100-150 beats per minute during a 15-20
minute treatment. This increases blood circulation, but not blood
pressure, since the heat also causes the tiny blood vessel in
the skin to expand, accommodating the increased blood flow. The
dilation of the capillary vessels enables the bloodstream to
carry great amounts of nutrients to the skin, enhancing the nutritive
status of the skin. The flushed, youthful look that steam and
sauna bathers maintain for up to several hours after treatment
is due to this effect.
Which is the best way of taking a steam or sauna treatment?
First of all, it is good to be aware of the distinction between
the two. Most people think of the heat of a sauna as dry heat
and the heat of a steam room as wet, humid heat. This distinction
is only partially correct. Sauna bathers in Finland splash water
on the heated stones in the sauna, raising the humidity level
to as much as 40%. Without that, the hot, dry sauna air can irritate
the mucus membranes.
In the hydrotherapeutic tradition used at European and America
spas, sweat therapy is used in preparation for massage as a means
of increasing the suppleness of the muscles and creating a deep
sense of relaxation in body and mind. In the Ayurvedic tradition
of India, which has gained popularity in the U.S. in recent years,
steam treatments are part of the traditional purification treatment
panchakarma, where they are used after massage to help the body
get rid of toxins dislodged during the treatment.
Sweat treatments can also be enjoyed on their own, as a workout
for the cardiovascular system, a deep-cleansing treat for the
body, an immune system booster, and a soothing and invigorating
refreshment for the mind.
There are a few precautions to keep in mind. Because of the
increase in cardiovascular activity caused by the high heat,
sweat therapy is not recommended for people with heart disease
or other cardiovascular problems. Individuals with high blood
pressure should first consult their doctor.
In addition, the treatment is not advised for pregnant women,
small children, or the elderly. Do not take a sweat treatment
if you have a fever or an open wound. If you have been working
out, be sure that your body has had time to cool down before
exposing it to the heat of a sweat bath.
Limit treatment time to 10 to 15 minutes. Drink plenty of water
of herbal tea before and after the sweat bath to replace fluids
lost during the treatment. The sweat glands can secrete up to
30 grams of sweat per minute, or almost one pint per 15 minutes,
so dehydration is a very real possibility, if you are not careful.
Fatigue and other indications of dehydration can occur with as
little as 1 to 2% loss in body weight.
The main thing to keep in mind is to enjoy the process. Do not
push your body beyond its comfort level; the point is not to
sweat it out the longest, but to allow your mind and body to
luxuriate in this health-enhancing and invigorating miniature
Working up a sweat is one of our oldest folk
me an opportunity to create fever and I will cure any illness," said
the Greek physician Paramenides two thousand years ago. Today,
besides creating a relaxing sense of well-being, relaxes and
loosens muscles tissue, reducing daily buildup of tension and
increasing muscle flexibility:
-boosts blood circulation, which helps aching and injured muscles
to recover faster, because the stronger the flow of blood, the
faster metabolic waste products are carried off.
-stimulates vasodilatation of peripheral blood vessels, which
relives pain and speeds healing of sprains and strains;
-speeds up the metabolic processes of vital organs and endocrine
glands resulting in a calorie loss of between 200 and 450 in
a 20 minute session.
According to Michael Marino, research associate at Lennox Hill
Hospital's Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma in
New York City:
"….. heat exposure stimulates the hypothalamus,
the gland that normally maintains and stabilizes body temperature
to dissipate the excess heat. Heart rate increases as more blood
flow is diverted from the inner organs towards the extremities
of the skin. This automatic "cooling" reaction is actually
a form of beneficial stress, a passive kind of cardiovascular
exercise that helps to keep the body's system alert and functioning
The beneficial stress of heat on the heart is confirmed by physical
fitness expert Bernard Gutin, Professor of Applied Physiology
and Education at Teacher's College, Columbia University:
"Heat acts as a form of mostly beneficial
stress on the body that produces physiological changes in heightened
pressure, stepped-up heart rate and an increase in stress hormones."
According to Dr. Paavo Aviola, an author in health matters:
"The sauna increases the eliminative, detoxifying
and cleansing capacity of the skin by stimulation of sweat
A steam bath provides a mild cleansing process for the skin as
certain body fluids are released through the skin. It also promotes
healthy skin tone and texture due to increased blood circulation."