Gimme some steam!
Mother Nature is the best healer.
The basic elements of fire and water, if combined in the proper context, can work wonders for the mind and body.
That’s what steam therapy is all about. Strip away the fancy, technological shell of a steam room; steam shower or an elaborate sauna room and the essentials will always remain: water and heat.
Steam baths and saunas have been used for centuries by diverse cultures for relaxation, cleansing, and detoxification. The Turks and Finns are associated with the sauna bath, for example. But even Greeks and Romans have acknowledged the benefits of ritual bathing. Romans had their sudatorium, or “sweat room” and the Turks called their version “hammam.”
It has been proven many times that bathing in steam has many therapeutic benefits for the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. The father of medicine, Hippocrates, believed the high temperatures that accompany fevers were the cure to any disease. So steam is a medicinal cure for the body.
The rejuvenating minerals from natural hot springs heal body and mind. But even without the minerals, steam or water vapor helps the body detoxify by flushing out toxins through perspiration. It also hydrates the skin, strengthens the immune system and boosts the respiratory system.
Perspiring is healthy. It is the body’s natural cooling and waste elimination system. Heat induces the pores of the skin to open and sweat glands excrete metabolic and waste products. As temperature rises, the body’s natural reaction is to perspire.
There are about 2.6 million sweat glands in the human body. Perspiration, urine, feces and respiration are the ways the body excretes waste products. A 20 to 30 minute session in a steam room can clear the body of up to 30% of toxins that have accumulated from poor diet and environmental factors.
Heat also causes the heart to beat faster, increasing blood circulation. The increased flow of blood brings vitamins, minerals, and oxygen to even the tiniest capillaries under the skin’s surface. The effect is to give the skin a warm, healthy glow and keep the skin clean, looking supple and hydrated.
The twin actions of the opening of pores and increased blood oxygen circulation are also good for treating acne. A quick cold shower should immediately follow to close the pores and prevent the toxins from being reabsorbed by the skin. This is not a panacea to acne problems but must of course be used in conjunction with a sensible diet, washing the face with a mild soap, drinking plenty of exercise and avoiding unhealthy stress.
Steam and sauna baths both raise body temperature similar to hyperthermia. Hyperthermia is a condition where the body absorbs heat through prolonged exposure to high temperatures. The body’s core temperature is elevated above 98° Fahrenheit, replicating the effects of a fever. The body’s response is to increase the production of white blood cells and antibodies. White blood cells are the body’s natural defense against foreign germs and disease. Antibody proteins protect against microorganisms that cause infection. The immune system is therefore strengthened.
Inhaling steam also opens the airways and relieves inflammation and congestion of the upper respiratory tract. It is a natural expectorant, helping loosen secretions in the mucous membrane, throat, and lungs.
Technically, a steam room differs from a sauna based on humidity. Simply stated, steam rooms are wet and saunas are dry. Steam rooms are moist and humid due to condensed vapor that is injected into the room from an external steam generator. Heat in saunas is produced from heated rocks splashed with water. The humidity in saunas hovers between 10 to 30%, compared to the constant 100% humidity in a steam bath.
Another difference between a steam room and a sauna is the heat source. A steam room uses a generator outside the room. From a distance as far as 40 feet, water is heated and the steam is injected into the room. The sauna’s setup consists of a stove inside the room, surrounded by rocks. Water is periodically poured over the rocks to regulate temperature. The heat is both generated and circulated inside.
Since a sauna is dry, the natural process of evaporation can leave perspiration and toxins to dry on the skin. The steam bath is different. A steam generator keeps the body perspiring constantly with no chance for sweat to evaporate or dry on the skin. The body is constantly kept warm and hydrated in the moist environment; the muscles remain supple. A steam bath induces perspiration faster and more efficiently than a sauna, reaching temperatures between 101 to 103° Fahrenheit in about 10 to 15 minutes. Temperatures in dry saunas often exceed 158° Fahrenheit. This extreme heat and low humidity causes heart rates to rise and induces sweating. Dry saunas may also dehydrate skin and irritate the membranes of the nose and lungs. Steam rooms’ constant humidity levels leave the skin supple and well hydrated throughout the session.
A 15 to 20 minute steam bath session can elevate the pulse rate from the average 75 beats per minute to between 100 to 150 beats per minute. Blood vessels expand with heat allowing oxygen to travel faster to all parts of the body. Blood circulation is increased but not blood pressure. Respiratory ailments such as bronchitis, asthma, allergies and the common could are alleviated through the use of steam. Steam clears mucus from the lungs. It keeps the air and nasal passages moist thereby protecting them from bacteria and allergens. Steam can loosens congestion in the upper respiratory membranes, stimulates mucous discharge from the lungs and relieve throat irritation.
Steam brings other benefits to the body. Heavy perspiration leaves the skin with a healthy glow because the pores are opened and dirt, grime and dead cells are purged. The skin looks refreshed and alive after a thorough steam shower and scrub.
Steam is also known to induce a state of relaxation, lower blood pressure, and relieve stress. Heat and steam cause the muscles to relax and become supple, increase the blood flow and promote calm. A steam session is a good way to soothe aching and tired muscles and tissues after a strenuous workout. Blood oxygen circulates faster and hastens the healing process. Aromatic oils and scents aid in this creation of an atmosphere of calmness and tranquility.
With the multiple therapeutic benefits steam can offer it is no wonder more people are incorporating steam into their homes, whether custom built installation of a modular steam room. The main items needed to convert a shower area or bathtub for steam is a steam-proof door and a steam generator.
Freestanding steam rooms can fit either a corner area or against a flat wall. The most common shapes are square or rectangular. A 4” x 6” shower area is sufficient for a residential steam room with a provision for one seat. A bigger area can accommodate more seats.
A steam generator heats water --not air-- and blasts the steam into the room. Developments in steam generator technology have made these machines so portable that they can be installed in most residential bathrooms. When purchasing a steam generator the size of the steam room, frequency of steam bath sessions and the generator’s access to an electrical outlet are the main considerations. The generator should be installed several feet away from the steam room but not outside the home to protect against the elements.
A steam generator should have an automatic flush and water filtration system to filter minerals or impurities. In areas where water quality may be poor, this feature will reduce manual flush requirements. A good generator must also have a thermostatic control and digital display to set and keep the desired temperature regulated.
The room’s height should not exceed 8 feet to maximize the build-up of steam. Heat rises, so anything higher might keep the ceiling area hot but floor temperatures cool. To measure the output capacity needed you will need, calculate the area of your steam room by multiplying the height, width and length of the room. The calculated figure, in cubic feet, will be the required output needed by the generator.
The materials of the wall and ceiling have an effect on the steam’s temperature. A steam room should maintain a temperature between 115 to 120° Fahrenheit during a 20-minute steam session.
Glazed tile is a great inside surface material because it has a waterproof finish. It must be applied with a thinset mortar rather than an organic adhesive for permanence. When compared with concrete, marble, glass, slate and stone, tile does not absorb heat. Vapor penetration is virtually impossible and tiles allow a faster build-up of heat. If a natural stone surface is preferred, a cement board substrate is recommended over moisture proof drywall because it will not deteriorate over time. The tile floor must use a cement base on top of a chlorinated polyethylene water barrier. This combination will be the water pan that tries to escape the room.
Molded acrylic is a water-resistant, non-corrosive surface best suited for a steam room. Sheet rock surfaces such as “Dura Rock” are fiberglass re-enforced cement will also suffice. They must just be properly sealed against moisture. Condensed vapor that surrounds the bather will have very limited effect on the walls. This limits the need for expensive and time-consuming maintenance and cleaning.
Contrast that with a sauna. Saunas are constructed of porous, kiln-dried wood. The wood will absorb perspiration and excreted toxins from the bather. The wood must be cleaned regularly with waxes and oils to disinfect and protect the wood from bacteria, fungi and germs.
It can never be overstated that once steam or vapor is generated, it must remain in the room. This must be the number one design priority.
The containment of steam is very important whether installing a modular steam unit or creating one in the bathroom. The bathroom area must be inspected and verified that it can withstand the accumulation of moisture or else the entire house may suffer eventual structural damage. Water vapor can pass through grout, cement board and even moisture resistant drywall. If the vapor passes through a wall cavity and cools, it condenses back into liquid and can promote the development of fungi, bacteria and mildew.
High performance cross-laminated polyethylene vapor barrier and plaster are the viable options to seal the room. The vapor barrier can be between 9 to 12 millimeters thick. A one-piece vapor barrier can cover the entire inside areas of the steam room.
Even the ceiling and walls tiles must be silicone-sealed to prevent moisture escape. Ceiling vents, skylights, and exterior windows are not recommended because they will cause the temperature to fluctuate.
The completely sealed steam room must have a sloping ceiling so that condensation from the ceiling will collect and drop in a particular spot and not randomly on the bathers. Seats must also be sloped gradually to allow condensation to run off. Ceiling slope of 7” per foot should be adequate. A drain must also be constructed for cleaning. The floor surface must also be non-skid.
The door of a steam room is tempered glass with a special gasket to prevent vapor from escaping. Steam doors can either be hinged or sliding. Hinged doors must always swing out. A steam door will have a very tiny gap at the bottom for ventilation purposes. Steam rises so it will not escape.
Vapor proof halogen down lights and fiber optic lighting are two options to illuminate the inside of the steam room. Halogen produces an atmospheric white light more efficiently. Optic fiber lighting conducts only light and not electricity making it the safest lighting option. Colored lighting adorns the walls of the room to set the proper, relaxing mood.
Having a personal steam room allows one complete freedom and privacy to tailor the sessions to his or her preferences. Using scented oils or mints during the steam session would extend the experience further, especially when inhalation is concerned. In public steam rooms and saunas it is of course proper to wear a bathing suit and wrap the private areas with a towel.
To keep the body well hydrated and cool, bring a bottle of water with you inside the room. Short, gradual sips will keep the throat and mouth hydrated. Plenty of water must also be drunk before and after the steam sessions. A cool compress for the forehead and a rolled up towel as a makeshift pillow are also appropriate if you plan on lying down. Wearing slippers inside is also recommended to prevent slippage and for general hygiene purposes.
Enjoying a great steam session at the end of a physically demanding day is a reward in itself already. Sitting and allowing the stress and toxins to slip away are is not only a guilty pleasure, but a healthy one as well.
For extreme satisfaction, combination steam showers and even steam showers with whirlpool. These indulgent features include hydro massage jets, FM radio, iPod, MP3 and CD players and speakers, handheld showers, digital control panels, foot massage and even LCD monitor with remote control. Aromatherapy is a very important attraction with steam showers. A mechanism allows the bather to add a few drops of fragrant oil into the steam outlet for a heightened sensual experience.