Sauna and Steam

Nowadays saunas and steam rooms are a common feature of almost any modern high-class fitness center or health club.

Although some people may be more familiar with sauna bathing, the concept of the steam bath dates back at least as long as that of the sauna and is actually several thousand years old. While the sauna originates from the Northern and Central European areas ( esp. Finland ), which used to have large forest regions ( traditional saunas were built with wooden logs ), the steam bath developed in the South Eastern European and Middle Eastern Areas ("Turkish Baths", etc.). The ancient Greeks considered the steam bath a vital part of their rigorous physical education program and the ancient Romans were well known for their elaborate baths, the so called "Thermae".

Since these antique times, people have known about the large array of rejuvenating, relaxing and healing health benefits of heat-treatment on the human body. Although the climate in a sauna and steam bath is quite different (a sauna bath is usually taken at a temperature of 80-90 degrees Celsius and the relatively low level of humidity of 20- 30 % ; a steam bath operates at approximately 45 degrees Celsius and 100 % humidity), both sauna and steam baths serve to temporarily raise the body's temperature to a higher level than normal, generating a condition called "hyperthermia" (a deliberately generated fever to promote the body's natural healing response). Both sauna and steam baths therefore also have similar health benefits. These common benefits include strengthening of the immune system, improved blood circulation, increased metabolic rate, elimination of body toxins and cleansing of the skin, relief of muscle tension and stiff joints, relief of tension and stress, alleviation of sinus congestion due to colds, asthma and allergies, etc.

With "hyperthermia" creating so many positive physiological responses in the body, sauna and steam bathing is nowadays as highly popular as ever.

In our modern fitness environment, a sauna bath is generally taken in a wooden cabin - usually made of pinewood - in which heat is generated by an electric stove with stones in a basket on its top. Occasionally throwing two or three ladlefuls of

water on these hot stones during a sauna bath generates instant steam which temporarily raises the humidity in the sauna up to 40 % and increases sweating.

A steam bath on the other hand is a room, lined with materials such as granite, marble or just tiles with steam produced by an electric steam generator. Aromatic oils (such as eucalyptus or evergreen oil) can be added to the special reservoir in the steam head, which makes it possible to enjoy the luxury of aromatherapy while steam bathing.

The use of the sauna and steam bath is actually quite similar. Before entering a sauna or steam bath, the bather usually takes a warm or cold shower. Sitting or lying down on a towel in the sauna or steam room for about 12-20 minutes induces profuse sweating and causes an increase of body temperature by about two degrees. After a sauna or steam bath it is advisable to cool off under a cold shower, then relax for some time and drink plenty of refreshing, non-alcoholic fluids. These steps can be repeated for several times according to the bather's wish.

When comparing the effectiveness of sauna and steam bathing, the balance surprisingly tips towards steam. Although the temperature in a steam bath is comparatively low (45 degrees Celsius), the necessary temperature elevation to achieve the powerful cleansing and healing benefits of hyperthermia are accomplished much faster and more effectively than in a sauna. This is due to the high levels of humidity in the steam bath, which eliminate the body's natural cooling process through perspiration. Although the steam-bather perspires profusely, the sweat can not evaporate due to the steam bath's high humidity level and therefore hardly allows for any loss of valuable body heat. The condensation forming on the bather's body due to the high moisture level actually even becomes the main heat transfer mechanism.

In the dry atmosphere of the sauna, on the other hand, sweat can evaporate and thus cool the bather's body, which is an obstacle in reaching the body temperature necessary to gather the health benefits related to hyperthermia. Also,

in a sauna, toxin-filled sweat can dry on the skin prior to rinsing, a problem that does not occur with steam, where the high moisture level allows it to simply run off the bather's body.

Last, but not least, the dry heat in the sauna can cause dehydration of the skin and may also cause irritation of the mucous membranes; steam bathing on the other hand relieves inflammation and congestion of upper respiratory mucous membranes, relieves throat irritation by moistening the air, relieves coughing, keeps mucous membranes from excessive drying and offers many other health benefits for the upper respiratory tract.