A natural treatment that alleviates stress, enhances circulation, prevents colds and flus, and helps the body detoxify? It may sound like just another multi-level marketing fad sweeping the alternative health scene. But steam bathing is one of the oldest therapies around—and you don't have to shell out big bucks to enjoy its benefits.
The use of steam for healing dates back to early civilizations thriving in China, Turkey, Rome, and India, where ayurveda">Ayurvedic physicians used the therapy as part of a purification ritual called panchakarma. Today, says Dr. Andrew Weil, author of 8 Weeks to Optimum Health (Knopf, 1997), the practice is more relevant than ever. "Sweating is one of our most important mechanisms of natural healing, since it allows the body to rid itself of unwanted materials." Eliminating toxins by this route lightens the workload for the liver and kidneys.
Harmful lifestyle habits, pollution, and chemicals in our food can lead to the gradual accumulation of toxins in the body—the first step towards disease, according to Ayurveda. Through regular steam or sauna bathing, the body purges impurities through the pores, paving the way for improved immune functioning. The practice also does wonders for the complexion as the heat increases circulation while the secretion of sweat flushes out impurities from the skin.
But more is not necessarily better when it comes to this ancient therapy. Ayurvedic physicians warn that engaging in excess can disturb the balance of pitta dosha, one of the three bodily humors that regulate all physiological processes. For preventive purposes, most people living in a temperate climate can safely take a 10-minute steam bath two to four times a month. During the winter months, try a steam bath once a week, reducing it to once every two weeks or less during the summer months, when pitta dosha is more easily aggravated. Refrain from steam or sauna if you are pregnant, have high blood pressure, or heart problems.
Dr. Weil notes that some people find the dry air of electric saunas irritating to their nasal passages, and a steam bath induces sweating more quickly and effectively.