Fired Up: Healing with Heat
WELLNESS-January + February 2012
By Genevieve Morgan
Illustration by Jamie Hogan
Oh baby, what to do when it’s this cold outside?
If you are like me, when you are walking around Portland in a permanent down-shrouded half-stoop (à la Quasimodo), you are probably obsessing about heat—all kinds of heat, from hot-water bottles to hot yoga to tropical beaches. The luxurious, tension-releasing power of heat is never so clear—or dear—to me as when the temperature display on the top of the Time and Temperature Building on Monument Square drops below freezing. But beyond the readily identifiable pleasures of warmth (think sinking into a hot tub after a day of skiing), there are genuine curative benefits when your body gets hot enough to sweat, either from the inside out (through exercise) or from the outside in (through a sweat bath). In the olden days, they used to call it provoking an artificial fever; nowadays, we call it hyperthermic detoxification. Either way, it is touted the world over as a harmless way for people in reasonably good health to improve hygiene, ward off disease, and promote physical and mental clarity.
Researchers have studied the subject intensively, and frankly the reports are, if taken as whole, inconclusive. But it should be noted that, if you look at history, cultures throughout the world have cultivated their own versions of the sweat bath, often establishing it as the pivotal center of communal and tribal life—from the thermae of the ancient Romans and the Native American sweat lodges to the modern-day Russian banias, Japanese onsens, Turkish hammams, and Finnish saunas. There are several differences among these traditions (mainly in temperature and whether they use dry or wet heat), but they all have a common goal: to raise the temperature of the body high enough to induce an abundant sweat.
Sweating is one of four primary ways the body eliminates toxins, bacteria, and metabolic by-products such as excess hormones and damaged cells; the other three are through urine, feces, and breath. All of these processes are connected by the unsung hero of your earthly existence, the chimney sweep and garbage collector of your physiology: the lymph system, a vast, interconnected web of ever-widening vessels that circulate lymphatic fluid. This fluid bathes each cell and drains cellular waste into hundreds of collection points called lymph nodes. To underscore the importance of the lymph system, let me say this: if it fails you, you’ll be dead within hours.
Some of us have more robust, swift-flowing lymph systems than others. Our organs of elimination—the skin, liver, intestines, bladder, and kidneys—need to be functioning well to keep the system from getting overwhelmed or sluggish. If lymph fluid gets blocked or stagnant, a condition that Chinese medicine practitioners call “excessive damp,” the result is a variety of less-than-fun but familiar symptoms, including nausea, fatigue, joint pain, headaches or migraines, arthritis, gastrointestinal issues, muscle cramping, skin breakouts, tissue swelling, and frequent cold or flu infections. Many people with slow-moving lymph just feel weighed down, heavy, bloated, and depressed. (And you thought it was those shorter winter days!)
But here’s the good news: every time we breathe or move (or get a massage), we pump lymph fluid around our bodies. And if we exercise hard enough to get hot and perspire, we radically energize the flow of lymph and speed up detoxification and elimination of body waste through our pores. Sweat also flushes out excess water, water-soluble toxins, and some toxic heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium. Fat-soluble toxins stored just beneath the surface of the skin melt and ooze out of the skin’s oil glands (gasoline, solvents, organochlorides, pesticides, and PCPs and PCBs are just a few of these nasties). Exercising in a hot climate or room, as you do in hot yoga, amplifies the process.
And here’s even better news: 15 to 20 minutes in a sauna or steam bath creates the same cleansing sweat without the exercise part. You can simply lie down and chat with your neighbor the entire time! I ask you, is there a better way to spend a cold Maine winter evening? So, for your happiness and health, I implore you to get thee to a sauna or steam bath and partake of this ancient and enjoyable ritual. Better yet, build or install one in your house (see sidebar) and invite me over. To aid you on your way to sweating copiously as a regular part of your self-care, here is a quick breakdown of the options and precautions I advise:
The Finnish sauna (pronounced SOW-na) has very low humidity and is heated to between 176 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit (or 100 degrees Celsius) by stones placed on either an electric or wood-burning heater. If the heater is wood-fired, water may be ladled over the stones to produce a thick cloud of steam (warning: do not do this if the stove is electric—you could electrocute yourself!). Steam has the effect of raising the humidity and the temperature in the sauna by several degrees, but it quickly evaporates. Most saunas are wood-lined rooms with wooden benches. Since most American-built saunas are heated electrically, they can be quite dry and irritating to people with sensitive nasal passages and sinuses.
The traditional steam bath uses a steam generator to create a warm, wet environment with 100 percent humidity. Steam baths are generally cooler than saunas, averaging around 104 degrees—in fact, if the steam were any hotter, it might scald the skin. Steam rooms are generally airtight and lined with ceramic tile. They must be cleaned regularly because the moist environment can harbor mildew and other germs. Steam baths, particularly when they are used in conjunction with the essence of aromatic herbs such as eucalyptus, can be very helpful for clearing congestion and alleviating respiratory symptoms of a cold or flu.
Newer technology has given us the infrared sauna, which uses infrared thermal heat to penetrate deep into the body and induce up to two or three times the volume of sweat as a traditional hot-stone sauna. Supporting claims say that these infrared rays are better at stimulating deep tissue and internal organs (those organs of elimination) at cooler temperatures (around 110 to 130 degrees), thereby allowing you to stay comfortable in the sauna longer and reap greater benefits.
Whichever option you choose, there are a few important things to keep in mind:
1. If you are pregnant or have a serious health condition or heart disease, consult your healthcare practitioner before entering any heated bath (or exercising in a heated room, for that matter).
2. If you are new to sweat bathing, leave the bath every 5 to 10 minutes, cool off, and then go back in.
3. A lukewarm or cold shower (or a dash outdoors) between sessions can be invigorating, and some advocates claim this hot-cold heat exchange increases the benefits of the bath. However, I caution you to introduce cold slowly until you are sure the contrast is not an excessive shock to your system.
Once you feel the rejuvenating, mood-enhancing effects of heat and sweat for yourself, I encourage you to make a 15- to 20-minute sauna or steam bath a couple times a week a staple of your health care routine, as it is for so many of our northern counterparts across the world. As the Finns say, “Sauna on köyhän apteekki.” The sauna is a poor man’s pharmacy.
Ready to sweat? Maine offers a number of ways to stoke your inner fire this winter.
Most public saunas and steam baths in our part of the world are in private health clubs, gyms, or hotel resorts where you have to be a member or guest, such as the Fairwinds Spa at Sebasco Harbor Resort (sebasco.com) a good thing when it comes to maintenance and safety. Many spas and gyms, even those located in a hotel, offer day-use passes that include use of the baths. If you want to go native in every sense of the word, Richmond Sauna (richmondsauna.com) has been in operation since 1975 and boasts a wood-fired sauna that was hand built by Richard Jarvi, the sauna’s owner. Fair warning: everyone will be naked, as this facility is clothing-optional and very groovy. For a more private experience, reserve space at the Riverview Sauna Spa and Massage Therapy (riverviewsaunaspa.com) in Bowdoinham. For a fee, you can rent time in their truly blissful space and have private use of the sauna and hot tub. You can also sign up for a massage in between. Headgames Salon for Hair and Body (headgameshair.com) in Portland has an infrared sauna that is available to anyone who books a spa appointment (for either before or after your treatment). Installing a sauna or steam bath in your home is surprisingly easy. Sandollar Spa and Pool (sandollarspa.com) in Brewer or Mainely Tubs (mainelytubs.com) in Scarborough can help you. Or, if you’re feeling industrious, download Mikkel Aaland’s guide How to Build Your Own Sauna and Sweat, from cyberbohemia.com and grab your hammer.