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How healthy is sauna or steam bath?

By Flavia Nassaka

Going to health clubs has become a hobby for many Ugandans

Shamim Nassuna, a young woman in her early twenties, has been battling acne of the face; a common skin disease which causes pimple-like blisters. She has tried a variety of lotions and creams with little success. But she has not given up hope yet. She has now resorted to sauna and steam baths; a remedy prescribed by a friend. Will it work?

On the face of it, it makes sense since acne is caused by excess fat and dead skin blocking the hair follicles. But acne is not the only condition driving into saunas and steam baths. For Julius Nsubuga, an overweight IT technician, sauna is a way of burning excess fat. He goes for sauna at least three times a week.


But going to health clubs has become a hobby for many Ugandans, even those without any particular ailment. For some, these places are merely for relaxation. As a result, in Kampala, one is spoilt for choice when it comes to these services. It looks like every fitness center offers them. They can go for as low as Shs10, 000 and as high as Shs40, 000 a session.

A typical sauna in the city is an unpainted, wood-paneled room often dark with wooden platforms and a constant heater. The sauna emits dry air and high temperature of over 80°C. Steam baths, on the other hand, emit wet heat sessions but the implication on the body is similar to the sauna.

Hussein Khaleel, an Instructor at Hotel Africana Health Club explains that unlike sauna, the ceiling of a steam room is intentionally made to a point that allows condensed moisture to flow down the walls instead of dripping onto clients.

Before getting into a sauna where one sweats profusely, one is required to strip naked and wrap a light cloth around the waist.  While in the sauna, skin temperature soars within minutes up to around 400c making a person pour a lot of sweat.

Khaleel says both steam and sauna are good for the skin if used in moderation. He says repeated baths protect the skin from withering because when one perspires; they let out a good amount of dirt, stale body oil, dead skin, and certain blood chemicals like sodium which will be referred to by many sauna places as internal cleansing.

However, although saunas and steam births are widely believed to offer health and aesthetic benefits, their safety and effectiveness have remained a question for health officials because little or no research has been done about them in Africa.

Dr. Richard Nfambi, of the Makerere School of Public Health says though some people have cut weight due to burning of calories when temperatures rise, the benefits and risks of the two are figured out basing on controlled trials and literature reviews. There have been no comprehensive studies done to prove the efficacy of saunas and steam baths in reducing weight or toning the skin.

If used in moderation, the doctor says the two are generally healthy and can offset stress by relaxing the body even when one is pregnant. He adds that it’s safe for a healthy cardiovascular system.

“One’s heart works harder in the steam bath, heart rates have been shown to increase from the average 72 beats per minute to anywhere between 100-160 beats per minute. This is good for a normal person but not recommended for those who already have cardiac complications”.

While warm steam baths have often been used to help alleviate nasal congestion and airway irritation associated with asthma, Dr. Nfambi points out that there’s no proof that these treatments help improve asthma symptoms.  He adds steam baths may relieve some of the symptoms because it may provide moisture to the airways but cautions though that steam can be dangerously hot, so in some asthmatics and those with sinuses, it can actually exacerbate symptoms.

Blood circulation will increase while in a sauna but not necessarily the blood pressure because external heat will stimulate stretching of the blood vessel walls, in effect enlarging the vessels and this will accommodate increased blood flow. In the process, problems such as blood clots and cramps in females can be resolved.

The doctor, however, warns against over exposure of male genitals to excessive temperatures. He says this can result in poor sperm development and low sperm count since testes by their nature are supposed to be kept at lower temperatures (ranging from 350C to 360C) than normal body temperatures to operate normally.

Sauna and steam bath tips

  • Khaleel says that you will not experience any problems using saunas or steam baths if you go by the following tips:
  • Stay in the steam bath for as long as you feel comfortable, but avoid taking the treatment for more than 15 minutes at a time. Stop if you feel some discomfort.
  • If you want to go in for another steam session, make sure your body has returned to its normal temperature first. Do not start a second session unless you have cooled down, and in any case, do not go in for more than three sessions at a time.
  • Sauna and steam bathing is very dehydrating, so make sure you drink up. Take a couple of glasses of water before and after the treatment to replace lost fluids. Drinking salted lemon water is a good option, as salt aids water retention.
  • Dehydration and the loss of salts and sugars in sweat can lead to nausea, headaches and heat stroke. So a sauna as a hangover cure is discouraged for its particularly dangerous, because you will already be dehydrated from the effects of the booze.

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