Everything you need to know about using the steam room
The benefitsSteams rooms are very popular and have been shown to increase overall health. Here are a few reasons why:
• Sweating: Toxin releaseSweating is great for you. Sweating is the body’s natural way of cooling itself off, but the body also uses its sweat glands to release toxins that are accumulated from foods, liquids, impurities in the air and all the other ways we unexpectedly poison ourselves. You can sweat up to 30% of these toxins that would otherwise be excreted through urination and defecation (or accumulate in the body). By sweating more, your kidneys and liver have less of a burden to carry regarding toxin release and can spend more time and energy on their other bodily functions. The liver can break down fats into energy more efficiently when it is healthier. Other bodily functions that need the liver include hormone control, converting and utilizing other chemicals and agents throughout the body, protein synthesis, conversion of carbohydrates, sugars and fats into energy, stress management and sleep regulation. Sweating also releases sodium out of the body, decreasing overall sodium levels. This will help lower overall blood pressure levels.
• Beauty: Better looking skinUsing the steam room regularly actually makes you more attractive. People who use the steam room (or sauna) have a particular radiance for around an hour after their sessions, and using steam rooms often will improve skin health and appearance over the long-term as well. Using the steam room is also beneficial for people with oily skin because the heat opens up the skin’s pores and allows the extra oils to be released, which will be washed away in the shower afterwards. This leads to cleaner pores with less oil suppressed underneath the skin. The steam room is also beneficial to people with dry skin because the opening of the skin’s pores allows oils and lipids to hydrate the skin. Additionally, the steam adds moisture to the skin which provides short-term relief from the constant dryness that people with dry skin suffer. See how I manipulate my skin to produce more or less oil using simple homeostasis principles.
• Cardio-like health benefitsSitting in the steam room has similar effects and benefits to a cardiovascular workout. Steaming causes the body to heat up more than normal. Heat is directly linked to metabolism. This causes an increased heart rate and also opens up the airways. These effects improve both heart and lung health as they are stimulated to work harder for these short periods of time as a response to the heat. By working harder, they adapt by getting stronger and increasing their overall capacity - the same way that cardio makes them stronger. Standard cardio can actually help strength trainers increase muscle mass if done right.
• Increased blood circulationThe heat acts as a vasodilator. This means that the veins and arteries widen because of the heat, allowing more blood to flow through the body and its limbs, muscles, organs, skin, brain etc. The increased heart rate also plays a significant role in increasing blood circulation as the body tries to pump more blood into the extremities (legs and arms, feet and hands) and away from the core in an effort to cool the body down. This is why your legs and arms go red and veiny in the heat. They go pale when the body is cold as the body tries to draw blood (and the heat the blood carries, which is vital for bodily functions) away from the extremities back into the core as a survival mechanism. The increased blood circulation induced from using a steam room has many benefits because the body is more able to carry precious nutrients (like oxygen, water, proteins, energy, minerals, etc.) throughout the body to where it is needed. It can also carry away waste products like lactic acid (learn about lactic acid to improve performance) and carbon dioxide a lot faster. This speeds up the healing and recovery of wounds, muscles and sickness. This is why using the steam room is one of my recommendations for maximizing recovery and growth during your rest week.
• Opening up of pores and veinsAs discussed earlier, using the steam room opens up the body on many levels, from opening pores on the skin which release oils and toxins, to opening veins and arteries to encourage better nutrient delivery and usage, to opening up the lungs and nasal passages to loosen and remove phlegm. Heat and steam is a great way for the body to open up passages that can sometimes get clogged up.
• Improved immune systemYour core body temperature increases in the steam room. Many germs and viruses cannot survive the one or two degree increase in body temperature and therefore die off. Because of increased blood circulation and released toxins, the body’s immune system is also made stronger and more adept at killing off bodily invaders - the few that do survive the temperature increase. Here are more ways to conquer illness faster.
• Destress and relaxationSteaming has a relaxing and de-stressing effect. This is a great way to take a break from the mental stress from work and the physical stress from working out - which can turn out to be quite refreshing for both body and mind. The de-stressing effects help with other ailments that often arise because of stress and the relaxing effects can speed up general recovery and add to general happiness.
• Cleansing, detoxification and release of hormonesSteam rooms help the body to clean itself from the inside out. Not only does sweating release toxins; but the increased blood circulation, relaxation effects and increased ability for the kidney and liver organs to perform other functions allows the body to metabolize and deal with hormones like cortisol (the body’s stress hormone), flush out lactic acid build up from physical exertion and get rid of acids from food. Strength training can also release muscle-building hormones.
The negative effects of using the steam room
• DehydrationSweating is great for you, but too much sweating can harm your health. One of the most common reasons (and most preventable) is water storage. When you sweat, your body loses a lot of water. Dehydration can happen very quickly and can lead to weakness, failure of normal functioning, feinting, hallucinations, death and even worse… decreased muscle mass! It is therefore important to make sure that you drink plenty of fluids while using the steam room and don’t stay in for too long. Too much of anything can quickly turn into a bad thing.
• Elevated heart rate and blood pressureAs discussed earlier, using the steam room temporarily elevates your heart rate and increases blood pressure. As much as this can be a beneficial and an often-desired effect, it can be dangerous too. For example, people with very high blood pressure or who are at risk of heart attacks or strokes should not use the steam room because this temporary increase might push their heart rates or blood pressure past safe levels. For healthy individuals who don’t have heart or blood pressure problems, this isn’t a risk as long as they don’t stay in for too long.
• OverheatingStaying in the heat for too long can push your body past the safe levels of stimulation to dangerous levels - a point where health is compromised. Stay in for long enough and you will die. It is important to make sure that you get out as soon as you start feeling dizzy or start feeling uncomfortable. However, heat is not dangerous when used in moderation. Increased blood circulation from the heat will also lead to greater blood loss from open wounds, which is why people with open wounds should not use the steam room, for both their and others’ health and safety.
• Minerals and electrolytesWhen you sweat, you lose salts, minerals and electrolytes that your body needs to function properly. If these minerals are not replaced (or if too much is lost in a short period of time) your body can suffer from mineral or electrolyte deficiencies, which can lead to a variety of negative health effects. Click here to read more about minerals, electrolytes and their roles, sources and deficiencies.
• Germs, viruses and fungiAlthough the increased body temperature kills many common germs within the body, public steam rooms can also be viable breeding grounds for other pathogens which thrive in hot, humid environments. Since many people use these steam rooms daily, it is easy for these pathogens to transmit from one person to the other through the floors, seats, walls and taps. One example of a fungus that is very often transmitted through steam rooms is athlete’s foot. Make sure that the steam room you use is cleaned regularly, that you wear sandals in the steam room and that your skin does not touch any surfaces. You can do this by wearing a towel around your waist.
• ChlorineIf the same water is used over and over in the steam rooms, high levels of chlorine can evaporate into the air, which is then inhaled and can cause toxicity in humans. It is always safe to ask gym staff how often the steam room water is replaced with fresh water.
• Rest and recovery (too much stimulus)Just like exercise places a stress on the body, steam rooms also place stress on the body to cope with heat and then bring the body back to a normal temperature afterwards. Using the steam room too much (especially in conjunction with too much training) to place too much stimulus on the body to deal with more stress than it can handle. As much as moderate usage will help with recovery, too much time forcing the body to respond to heat stress can lead to overtraining.
• Drug interactionsUsing steams rooms with medicines, illegal substances and alcohol can be dangerous. Drug rehabs often use steam rooms to help recovering drug and alcohol addicts detoxify from drugs and substances, but using the steam room whilst under the influence of alcohol, for example, can be dangerous because alcohol dehydrates the body and further dehydration from steaming could drain the body of more fluid than it can cope with. Whenever on medication, make sure that you consult with your doctor before using a steam room to make sure that the medicine you are using won’t have any adverse effects from the steaming. Some substances, for example, are rendered mute (don’t so what they are supposed to) or have counteractive effects because of steaming. Drugs that are meant to adjust blood pressure and circulation are especially affected by heat therapy.
The truth about steaming
• Should you steam?It is totally up to you, but steaming from time to time will be beneficial to your health and can actually help you to achieve your goals because it can keep your body detoxed, destressed and running optimally. It can complement muscle building, fat loss and fitness pursuits (by speeding up recovery). I steam around once a week to increase the body's ability to recover.
• How often should you steam?It is considered optimal to steam 2-3 times a week. Steaming more often could drain your body of too many essential minerals and electrolytes.
• How long should you steam?Do not steam for longer than 20 minutes, depending on the heat of the steam room. It is not about building up tolerance and resistance to steam rooms like exercise. It is about increasing body temperature to the point where your body sweats. Longer steaming times can place a greater stress and nutrient loss (electrolytes and minerals) on the body, instead of a stress and toxin release. When starting out, steam for 5 minutes only, then cool off and then another 5 minutes for your body to get used to it, then build up to one 20-minute session only.
• Can you steam after a workout?This has been a topic of debate for a long time. Some argue that steaming after a workout is a great way to relax the muscles and body after physical exertion and makes for a great ‘cool-down’ session, flushing out lactic acid, increasing blood blow and nutrient delivery where it is needed. Others argue that physical exercise already increases body temperature and that steaming after a workout prolongs recovery and keeps the body out of its anabolic state after exercise because it takes longer to cool down than it would from exercise alone. Try both and see what works best for you. Personally, I don't steam on muscle-building days because I already have a cool-down routine (light, short cardio), I want my body to return to a normal (anabolic or muscle-building) state as soon as possible and I focus on nutrition for the best post-workout recovery.
• At what other times can you steam?Steaming on rest days is a great way to relax and increase blood flow to help with rest and recovery (and is also a great excuse to get into the gym when that’s the only place you want to be on rest days). Some say that steaming before a workout gets the blood flowing and is a great ‘warm-up’ before exercise. Steaming is one of the best ways to maximize recovery on rest days.
• Make sure to shower before and after using the steam roomThis is very important. This cleans away all the extra dirt that might clog your pores before steaming, and washes off the toxins released after steaming. By showering before and after using the steam room, the risk of germ and fungus transference from one person to another is also reduced.
• Replace lost nutrientsDon’t steam too often. Eat enough healthy, balanced foods every day. Many people drink a mineral and electrolyte replacement after steam sessions.
It’s up to you to choose what works best for you. If you enjoy steaming, have fun! If you don’t, that’s okay too. STAY STRONG!