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Evaporating Winter Blues: What Saunas and Steam Rooms Do to Your Body

By Serena Solomon | February 5, 2015 9:37am
 In the cold of winter, a good long steam in a Russian-style sauna or bathhhouse might help, according to some doctors.
Russian-style Bathhouse
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NEW YORK CITY — When Stewart Cauley, 50, has enough of New York City’s winter, he doesn’t head to Mexico. He heads to a bathhouse for a steam and cold plunge.

“After cooking yourself in the bath, it makes it that much more tolerable,” he said.

Cauley said he walks in feeling tired and drained, but leaves with “enough energy to make it through the week.” He goes to the baths about once a month for three to six hours.

The extreme temperatures of saunas, steam rooms and cold plunge pools can positively impact the body, from assisting in detoxification and stress-relief according to naturopathic doctors.

Dr. Marc Eisenberg, from the department of cardiology at Columbia University and its medical center, cautioned that saunas and bathhouses are not safe for everyone. He advised the elderly and those on blood pressure medication to seek the advice of a doctor before going for a steam. Pregnant women should also get a medical opinion first.

"Granted, 95 percent of people can do this and they are fine," he said.

Dr. Nada Elbuluk, an assistant professor at NYU Langone’s Department of Dermatology, said clinical studies on the health benefits of saunas were few, with the mainstream medical community remaining skeptical.

All who were interviewed for this story said it was essential for bath-goers to continuously rehydrate with water while in the heat. It's also wise to research the spa you'll be visiting ahead of your visit to make sure the facility operates according to health codes.

Here’s What Happens to Your Body When You Enter a Sauna or Steam Room:

Your Blood Vessels Get Big

When you step into a hot environment, your blood vessels dilate, Greenwich Village-based naturopath Nicole Egenberger said.

“Immediately there is an increase in circulation, an opening up of the microcirculation [smaller blood vessels] similar to when you exercise,” she said.

With the increased flow of blood, the body begins to detox by flushing out “areas you don’t normally clean out” because of a lack of circulation, said Egenberger. The increased blood flow brings more oxygen to the surface of the skin, she added.

The faster blood flow makes the heart push harder to get it around the body, which can be good or bad depending on a person's health, Eisenberg said.

You Have a Deep Sweat

Sweating helps to regulate your internal body temperature. It also excretes toxins in the process.

Toxins like the pesticides from fruit and vegetables or heavy metals from fish are stored in body fat. Deep sweating is the most effective way to get them out of the body, according to naturopath Gabrielle Frances, who is based in Little Italy.

The lymphatic system, which acts like the body’s sewer, dumps toxins into the blood so it can be moved out by sweat glands, she said.

 The Russian and Turkish Baths in the East Village have been operating since 1892.
The Russian and Turkish Baths in the East Village have been operating since 1892.
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon

“If [the body] isn’t moving [the toxins] out through sweat, it often moves it out through the skin, so that is why we sometimes see things like acne,” said Frances, noting that there are many other causes of acne.

Your Body Temperature Rises

Bad news for that cold or flu: in the heat of a bathhouse a rise in core body temperature mimics a fever, which is a way your body naturally kills viruses, according to Egenberger. 

“That makes the virus more vulnerable and it has trouble reproducing,” she said.

The heat also helps the activity of the immune system pick up pace, according to Egenberger.

Your Brain Releases "Happy Molecules"

Like a vacation to a hot climate, a few hours in the baths will increase the brain’s output of serotonin and melatonin, according to Frances.

“Melatonin is the hormone that helps regulate other hormones and it also helps sleep and stress,” she said. “Serotonin is our happy molecule. It gives us a sense of well-being, like it’s a sunny day outside.”

How Your Body Reacts to the Icy Cold Plunge

Cauley frequents the Russian and Turkish Baths in the East Village, which opened in 1892. The East 10th Street spa has an underground warren of saunas set at varying temperatures, with a steam room and a cold plunge pool. Inside the two hottest rooms at the Russian and Turkish baths, guests also cool themselves off with a cold shower blast or by dousing themselves in buckets of cold water.

With a jolting drop in temperature from 200 degrees to about 40 in the plunge pool, blood vessels constrict and the muscles tighten. When one gets out of the pool there is another dilation of blood vessels that leads to more cleansing of blood and the lymphatic system, according to Frances.

“The blood goes into the muscles and out of the muscles and into the muscles,” she said of alternating from hot to cold to hot to cold. 

Along with enduring the extreme heat, the drastic temperature drop can put more pressure on the heart, according to Eisenberg.

"The quick change doesn’t seem to be healthy to be honest," he said.

How Your Body Reacts to a Platza

The platza, which is usually an oak or birch branch with leaves, is whipped on willing participants who lie on the highest and hottest section of the Russian Room, according to Dmitry Shapiro, whose family owns East Village bathhouse. The process usually leaves skin red and a little raw.

“It can be tough sometimes and it can hurt a little bit,” he said.

He said the platza removes dead skin cells and allows the anti-viral and anti-fungal essential oils from the plant to seep into the skin.

It’s also another way to increase blood flow to the top of the skin, according to Frances.

“When there is an injury or a trauma, the body sends blood and nutrients to that area,” she said. “With the platza, it draws all the blood to the surface.”

 The Redwood Sauna at the Russian and Turkish Baths in the East Village is made from cherry wood.
The Redwood Sauna at the Russian and Turkish Baths in the East Village is made from cherry wood.
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon