The risk of cancer may haunt us all, but in some professions that risk increases ten times over.
Firefighters are one of these groups, due to regular exposure to dangerous toxins through the combustion byproducts of burning materials. So as if being a firefighter weren’t dangerous enough, just think about this: Cancer is responsible for more than 60 percent of job-related deaths in this profession.
To try to address the problem, a new fire station in Eau Claire, Wisconsin was built with “decontamination rooms” designed to cut down on cancer risk. The detox technique used might be helpful for all of us. . .
At the Eau Claire fire station, any time firefighters return from a structure call they put their dirty gear, laced with combustion products, in an extractor to get clean. Then they go down a hallway to the decontamination area, which is a whole section of the firehouse separate from the living area.
Their decontamination process starts with taking a regular shower followed by a steam shower, and then another regular shower.
The goal with the steam shower is to open their pores and elevate the core body temperature to prompt sweating. This helps get rid of carcinogens that got absorbed into the skin by pushing those toxins back out of the skin, where they get washed off by the final shower. The hope is that this decontamination process will have a lasting impact on firefighters’ health and potentially save lives.
So, the question becomes, is a steam shower something you should incorporate into your own cancer prevention regime?
Two of a kind; one’s wet, one’s not
Often found at gyms or spas, and increasingly in homes, steam rooms are heated spaces, usually tiled, that have a water-filled generator pump. When in use, steam is pushed into the enclosed space to increase the moisture level in the air. Steam showers and steam rooms are the same thing, though the latter is larger and is designed for multiple people to use at a time.
A steam room is different from a sauna, though both are heated rooms intended to prompt relaxation and help with medical conditions. The difference is the type of heat, since a steam room is filled with moist heat and a sauna offers dry heat.
Saunas, which I’ve written about extensively, also offer an array of impressive health benefits. They are wood-paneled and use infrared technology or an electric stove to heat rocks, and the heat is then radiated throughout the room.
The temperature in a sauna can be anywhere from 120 degrees to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, with a humidity level between five and 30 percent. For a steam room, the temperature is between 110 and 114 degrees Fahrenheit with a humidity level of 100 percent.
What happens after the post-wash phase
There’s a wide array of benefits associated with steam room use, especially for the cardiovascular system. A study a few years ago from Medical Science Monitor showed that moist heat improves circulation by prompting the small blood vessels and capillaries to dilate or open. That means blood flows more easily and transports more oxygen around the body.
Steam room therapy also helps keep the heart healthy by reducing blood pressure and even helps repair scrapes and wounds, as tissue healing is an intricate process regulated by circulation.
The steam shower helps by saturating the skin and increasing circulation and oxygen levels. This also helps with overall skin health and has been used in the treatment of conditions like acne.
Moist heat from a steam room benefits sore muscles and is widely used by athletes for muscle recovery. The heat soothes nerve endings and relaxes muscles. According to research from the Journal of Clinical Medicine Research, moist heat is more effective than dry heat at preserving strength and reducing pain.
Steam heat also helps loosen stiff joints, reduces stress, opens the sinuses, and may in fact help burn calories because of the increase in heart rate (this last benefit is most effective after an exercise session).
Steam treatment also may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, some researchers believe that Alzheimer’s develops as a result of misfolded proteins, such as beta amyloid, which play a huge role in the development of several neurodegenerative diseases. Using a steam room regularly helps increase your levels of HSPs and FOXO3, which are believed to help repair misfolded proteins to their original structures.
The self-cleaning fortress within
But it’s what steam rooms can do for your lungs and toxic load that most interests me in terms of cancer prevention and treatment.
This is less about a direct attack on lung cancer cells and more about fortifying the body in other ways. For example, regular steam room use has a positive long-term effect on your immune system. The heat helps to propagate more white blood cells, which boosts your overall immune function.
The intense temperatures of steam rooms also help open breathing passageways and loosen mucus along with increasing blood flow, which helps the body fight virtually any kind of lung disorder.
And perhaps most important for cancer treatment and prevention, steam rooms help push toxins out of your system, as we saw in the firefighter example. Lung cancer develops if a person has a history of exposure to inhaled chemicals or other toxins, so the sooner you can get them out of the body, the better.
The high humidity within a steam room or steam shower also makes it an ideal place to take in essential oils – consider it “steam shower aromatherapy.” And because essential oils have been scientifically proven to produce several mental and physical benefits, it’s worth adding these scents to your steam experience. Most steam rooms offer an aroma pump option that can be installed. Or, you can add the oil to a spray bottle and spray all around the steam room.
Some people report that they find aromatherapy useful in treating the symptoms of cancer, as well as several other illnesses, by helping to relieve stress, depression, anxiety, and tiredness, and boosting wellbeing. The most popular scents for these benefits are lavender, rosemary, and eucalyptus.
Hot, short, and with a side of water
Overall, steam room use is a beneficial habit to add to your health regimen. Always keep in mind that steam rooms contain extreme heat, which means you should check with your doctor before using them if you’re pregnant, have heart disease or blood pressure issues, or epilepsy.
Dehydration is your biggest risk in a steam room, so take care to always drink enough water to replenish the amount you sweated out.
And when you launch your steam room routine, you’ll want to go in for short increments at first. Five to ten minutes a session is good for beginners. Regular steam users can stay in a room for up to 20 to 30 minutes. Two to three times a week is average for casual users; dedicated steam room users have four to seven sessions a week.
Home units can be purchased, and many health clubs also offer a steam room.
- “A comparison of whole body vibration and moist heat on lower extremity skin temperature and skin blood flow in healthy older individuals.” By Everett B. Lohman, III, et al. Med Sci Monit. 2012; 18(7): CR415–CR424.
- “Eau Claire fire station uses decontamination rooms to cut down on cancer risk.” By Sarah Winkelmann for WEAU13 News, 20 May 2019.
- “Moist Heat or Dry Heat for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.” By Jerrold Petrofsky, J Clin Med Res. 2013 Dec; 5(6): 416–425.
- “Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body.” By A Mooventhan and L Nivethitha. N Am J Med Sci. 2014 May; 6(5): 199–209.
- “Steam Rooms Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia? In Some People, It Could.”
- “What are the benefits of a steam room.” By Jon Johnson for Medical News Today, 15 December 2017.