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Steam Room vs Sauna – Benefits Compared

by Max
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Steam Room vs Sauna - Benefits Compared

While saunas and steam rooms are both used for mostly the same reason, there are several key differences between the two types of rooms that are well worth knowing. Even more interestingly, there are several benefits unique to either the traditional wood-burning sauna or the steam room that may suit you better depending on when or why you’re looking to use the sauna. Let’s explore today the significant differences and unique qualities of the sauna and the steam room. Depending on why you’re looking to soak in the heat, either the steam room or the sauna may be the better choice for your health.

What is a Steam Room, and What is a Sauna?

There are several major differences between steam rooms and saunas, but those differences will be even more clear after a brief recap of what exactly steam rooms and saunas truly are.

What is a Sauna?

The word “sauna” is originally a Finnish word that is both a verb (“to sauna”) as well as the name of the place you take a sauna. Saunas have been around in Scandinavia since ancient times and spread throughout the world as cultural mixing became easier and easier in the world. The sauna bathhouse is traditionally built of wood and has two main rooms: one is a room with a wood stove for feeding a fire, and the other is a neighboring room where that heat is piped into.

The hot room is, of course, rather hot and can range from 70 – 95 degrees Celsius.

While this is the most traditional image of the sauna, there are many modern versions of this heating system that are both much more automated and less dangerous. Being that traditional Finnish saunas are built of wood and have a wood-burning fire raging inside; it’s not hard to believe that some poorly built traditional saunas have caught fire in the past.

The heat that goes into the hot room of a traditional sauna has no moisture in it at all. That means that on top of being rather hot, wood-burning saunas are also uniquely dry. Traditional saunas, however, have a classic method of kicking up the humidity when the dryness of the hot room gets a touch too mean. There is usually a bucket of water with a ladle in the hot room and a stack of rocks on top of the part of the stove in the hot room. When someone spreads water on the stones, that water immediately hisses and evaporates. That puts a brief shot of steam into the otherwise dead-dry sauna.

What is a Steam Room?

A steam room can be just about any small contained room piped in with steam making the room powerfully humid. There is actually a fair bit of debate as to where the steam room genuinely originated, but there are two major examples of steam rooms in the ancient world that most resemble the steam rooms we see today. First, consider the Turkish Hammam. Hammam refers to a long bathing process with several steps of scrubbing and massage before and after a good steaming, but the most important step is just that: spending time in a tremendously humid room. The other example is from Ancient Greece. These steam rooms were much, much larger than the steam rooms we see today. These rooms could hold dozens and some up to hundreds of people at once. The Greek laconia and Turkish Hammam are unique in their own ways. But for the purposes of weighing the difference between a sauna and a steam room, the Turkish Hammam and the Greek laconia can all be treated the same, as they can all bring about the same benefits.

Health Benefits Unique to Saunas

There are several major health benefits that tend to show up more in the sauna. For a full view of the benefits of using a sauna, check out our detailed post dedicated to this topic.

Health Benefits of Saunas and Steam Rooms in Comparison
Health Benefits of Saunas and Steam Rooms in Comparison

The Sauna Promotes Cognitive Health

Saunas have several benefits that tend to show up more often than in steam rooms. The first of these effects is increased cognitive health. There are multiple studies that show regular use of a sauna can help prevent cognitive diseases like Alzheimer later in life. The studies further showed that the more frequently a person uses the sauna, the stronger those cognitive benefits appear in our lives. Similar to overall cognitive health, saunas have also been proven to help even out a person’s overall mood and attitude, according to a multi-decade Finnish study.

The Sauna Promotes Thermoregulatory Health

Because wood-burning saunas tend to burn hotter than steam rooms, they are generally better for a person’s overall thermoregulatory health. When a person steps into a sauna specifically, their body immediately starts working to keep their internal temperature consistent. This is what our body does when we get either too hot or too cold and as we return to our average body temperature – it is called returning to homeostasis. When our body returns to homeostasis in a hot place like the sauna, this is an incredibly good exercise for our thermoregulatory health; each and every time we do this, our body gets better and better at maintaining our homeostasis. Plus, when the body returns to homeostasis, it sends signals to the brain, which have been found to help our mental health.

Health Benefits Unique to Steam Rooms

Because the steam room is so different from the sauna, there are actually several health benefits that are stronger in the steam room.

Steam Rooms Promote Respiratory System Health

The water vapor in a steam room is incredibly good for our respiratory system. And because there is so much water vapor in a steam room, it’s only natural that steam rooms are better for our overall breathing health. The steam inside steam rooms naturally loosens the mucus and phlegm in our noses and lungs and, as a result, opens up our breathing pathways naturally. Taking a deep breath in a steam room is also a great way to counter dryness in the nose. There are multiple studies that show regular steam room use can also reduce your risk of getting colds and other small sicknesses that involve the respiratory system.

Steam Rooms Promote Skin Health

It’s well known to anyone who has spent time in one that the skin feels extra refreshed after a visit to a steam room. Because steam rooms are so humid, the air around you aids your sweating in a way utterly different from wood-burning saunas. Steam helps our pores give off more toxins and oils. While a person will still certainly sweat in a traditional wood-burning sauna, the humid environment of a steam room will also work to rehydrate the skin and give off a fuller glow after you soak in the steam. That glow in our skin comes about from a release of natural oils from our pores which also act as a natural moisturizer.

Health Benefits Shared by Steam Rooms and Saunas

Luckily, many of the significant benefits of using the sauna are also found in the steam room.

Saunas and Steam Rooms are good for our Circulatory Health

Because both saunas and steam rooms make us sweat, they are both extraordinarily good for our overall circulatory health. While saunas tend to run a bit hotter, there is evidence that shows both saunas and steam rooms are equally good for our circulatory health. When we step into either a sauna or a steam room, our heart rate goes up compared to when we aren’t in the heat. There is evidence that shows our body is doing the most for our cardiovascular health, anywhere from 50-90 degrees Celsius; this range is possible for both saunas and steam rooms. As we spend more and more time in the sauna, our blood vessels will also help reduce overall inflammation and release endorphins that may make post-work sessions even more beneficial.

Interestingly, the reasons that saunas and steam rooms are good for our circulatory and cardiovascular health are actually slightly different. When we step into a steam room, the body instantly reacts to the humid environment and gives off a hormone called aldosterone. Aldosterone over a long period of time can help lower chronic high blood pressure. So the more frequently a person uses a steam room, the more frequently this certain hormone makes its way into our bloodstream. Aldosterone may also aid our overall ability to relax, hence why steam rooms are so relaxing.

Saunas, however, are good for our circulatory and cardiovascular health for entirely different reasons. When a person takes a traditional wood-burning sauna, the dry environment is able to aid our overall systolic blood pressure without releasing aldosterone. Taking regular saunas over a long period of time can help reduce chronic high blood pressure, similar to a steam room, but aldosterone doesn’t increase in a wood-burning sauna.

Saunas and Steam Rooms are Good for Our Muscular Health

For those of us who are using the sauna to relax our muscles, both environments are equally beneficial. Those who are looking to ease out their muscles after a workout and turn to a sauna or steam room are both after the same thing: heat therapy. Our muscles undergo serious relaxation when exposed to heat over 50 degrees Celsius. While there is some debate about whether steam in a steam room or the dry heat in a sauna is better for muscle health, the ultimate answer is that both are incredibly relaxing additions to your workout regimen.

Partially because of the circulatory system benefits discussed above, we can understand why both saunas and steam rooms would be good for our muscle health. With our blood pressure increased, the oxygen that our blood carries makes its way around the body faster than normal. That oxygen is mostly responsible for muscle relaxation, as reoxidizing our muscles also reduces painful soreness in the days following the workout.

Questions About Saunas and Steam Rooms

There are several major questions sauna and steam rooms users ask regarding the benefits of either system. Let’s explore those here.

Should You Use a Sauna or Steam Room First?

If you are planning on using both a sauna and a steam room in one day, it’s natural to ask which makes sense first. While there is no health benefit you may lose out on by choosing one or the other, there is an answer the sauna community largely agrees on. The most common order is a sauna, followed by the steam room. But the two ought not to be directly taken one after another. It is a good idea to leave a space of about 15 minutes in between any kind of heat session, sauna or steam room, to let your body cool down. After taking a sauna, it is also traditional to jump in a cold lake or even just a pile of snow. The sauna experience involves both getting hot in the sauna itself and shocking the body with the cold right afterward. After getting hit with that serious cold, going into the steam room is a great way to relax the body. Another idea is to take a cold shower in between sauna and steam room visits. If you are lucky enough to have both a sauna and steam room available, it’s more than worth it to try a post-sauna cooling steam room visit!

Is a Steam Room or a Sauna Harder to Use?

Depending on your health conditions, it may be easier to use a sauna or a steam room. For example, people with asthma or other respiratory problems have reported increased trouble taking deep breaths in steam rooms because of the high humidity. But on the other hand, people who are newer to steam rooms and saunas, in general, may find steam rooms easier to use because they are slightly less hot than wood-burning saunas. Wood-burning saunas may also be unforgiving to newcomers because the dry air can be difficult to breathe in at first. But this can quickly be solved by spreading some water over the hot rocks on the wood stove. Both saunas and steam rooms have learning curves. If you are new to either method, it is probably a good idea to gradually increase your time spent in the heat per session over a period of weeks.

Should You Use a Sauna or Steam Room After a Workout?

One of the most common reasons to use a sauna is as a post-workout cooldown. The good news is there is no downside to using either a sauna or a steam room after a workout. As long as you are properly hydrated, both the sauna and steam room will give you the relief you are looking for. Another reason people take up saunas as a post-workout choice is because of continued sweating. With this in mind, there is a very slight reason to prefer traditional wood-burning saunas; this is because they are, on average, slightly hotter than steam rooms. But even the lowest temperature in a steam room is bound to make you sweat, especially after a workout. Further, there is new research that shows steam rooms may help reduce soreness in the days after a workout.

Should You Use a Sauna or Steam Room to Lose Weight?

Both the sauna and steam room are equally able to help you lose weight … that’s because they both equally don’t help you lose weight. This is a long-running myth about saunas and steam rooms, which comes from a misunderstanding about how the body holds weight. While some of our body’s weight is indeed unwanted fat, a substantial amount of it is also water. When you sweat in a sauna or steam room, you are technically losing weight, but this weight is only the water on the outer layer of your skin that was set aside by your body to sweat out. So while a person could conceivably weigh a kg less after taking a sauna, that kg will come right back after you rehydrate. The only way to genuinely lose weight is a well-balanced diet and regular exercise.

Conclusions on Saunas vs Steam Rooms

While the sauna and the steam room are both able to do some things better than the other, the overall benefits of both are quite similar. It comes down to personal preference more than anything else as to which type of bathhouse you want to use. If only a sauna or a steam room is available to you, don’t feel worried that you are using the worse of two options. Both are incredibly good for your health. While the humidity of a steam room may be better for clearing up dryness in your nose, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t make that humidity happen in a wood-burning sauna by spreading water on the rocks over the stove! And further, while saunas may be measurably better for users’ overall thermoregulatory health, the gains are not nearly as significant as those for our overall cardiovascular system that come about in both the sauna and the steam room. Regardless of your chosen method, know that your body is taking in one of the best natural remedies possible.

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