Danger — Your Computer Can Harm Your Health

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

You know “Dr. Google,” don’t you? He’s become the go-to guy for most folks wondering whether that odd and slightly painful bump on the shoulder is something to worry about… if queasiness that won’t quit might be a side effect of that new medication… or whether a headache that started a day and a half ago actually might be a lethal brain tumor.

New research shows that 80% of regular Internet users now go online with their questions about health and medicine — it’s easy, fast and free, and there’s a wealth of information. Most of us benefit greatly from having so much excellent information at our fingertips. But for some of us, online health information can become an obsession that turns us into “cyberchondriacs” who are not only tedious to sit next to at dinner parties but who actually end up suffering acutely from psychological distress.

Being constantly worried about your health is a hallmark of the complex psychological syndrome doctors call hypochondriasis. For people with hypochondriac tendencies, being able to go online to rapidly gratify an urgent “need” for medical information can spiral out of control. They have an addiction-like difficulty controlling this behavior — getting answers may help them feel calm for a little while, but the anxiety returns and so back they go to their computers. It never ends, and it makes life miserable for them and — it must be said! — for the people close to them.

Brian Fallon, MD, MPH, MEd, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and director of the University’s Center for the Study of Neuroinflammatory Disorders & Behavioral Medicine, is coauthor with Carla Cantor of the book Phantom Illness: Shattering the Myth of Hypochondria. He told me that between 5% and 10% of the population have hypochondriacal tendencies. According to Dr. Fallon, their exaggerated fear of illness usually is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. This problem is found equally in men and women, though it is somewhat more prevalent in younger (teens and young adults) than in older people.

The Internet Feeds the Fear

Everyone is more aware of health news nowadays because it’s widely covered by the media and medications and medical services are aggressively advertised. This, too, feeds cyberchondria — vulnerable people see or hear these stories and begin to think that they may have the conditions that are mentioned.

Making matters worse: Dr. Fallon points out that a pitfall of seeking health information online is that it’s hard to know what’s true. Health-content providers may be selling products and may or may not check facts. Bloggers can say whatever they want, whether it’s true or not. Minor problems can be made to seem more dramatic. And, since cyberchondriacs often are quite intelligent, their awareness that not all the information they find online is reliable inspires them to conduct even more searches in a quest to verify or debunk what they’ve seen online… and the beat goes on.

Though there’s surprisingly little research available about this condition, Dr. Fallon told me that he’s working to change that. Preliminary results from his research confirm what makes intuitive sense — online health research hurts rather than helps these anxious and vulnerable people. “Cyberchondria can mess up your life,” Dr. Fallon said.

Handle with Care

Anyone and everyone who searches online for health information needs to be judicious when choosing Internet sites. The best places to start are the ones that offer information provided by physicians and other well-trained health-care professional — and, said Dr. Fallon, “all the better if these pros are affiliated with respected medical institutions.” The most trustworthy information will be presented in a balanced way, even including alternative hypotheses. Dr. Fallon advises avoiding sponsored content, which is not objective, and health blogs, which often are neither objective nor entirely factual.

Further, Dr. Fallon suggests that people who have a tendency to “catastrophize” in their lives — imagining small items to be giant catastrophes — may be well-advised to avoid using the Internet for health information altogether, since doing so is likely to lead to intense anxiety and distress. He said that people generally are aware of whether or not this advice applies to them. “If you have a high level of health anxiety, you already know it,” he said, noting that if you have failed to recognize this trait in yourself, you will surely have heard about it from frustrated friends and loved ones who have commented on your gloom-and-doom tendencies.

Going online for medical information can be a difficult habit to break, but the good news, Dr. Fallon said, is that for many people who quit the habit, the most intense feelings last for no more than a day or two. And if you can stop stoking your health fears with online research for one to three weeks by distracting yourself (try a walk, a talk with a good friend or some other activity to shift your focus), your anxiety will decrease, he added — and then you may be able to successfully rely on information and advice from your doctors who know you.

If you can’t stop the cyberchondria cycle on your own, there is one important bit of research you should do — ask someone you trust for the name of a psychotherapist. According to Dr. Fallon, people who have severe health anxiety can be effectively treated with cognitive behavioral therapy and, if necessary, antidepression medication, such as fluoxetine (Prozac) or fluvoxamine (Luvox), to help restore the chemical balance in their brains.


Brian Fallon, MD, MPH, MEd, professor of clinical psychiatry and director, Center for the Study of Neuroinflammatory Disorders & Biobehavioral Medicine, Columbia University, New York City, and coauthor with Carla Cantor of Phantom Illness: Shattering the Myth of Hypochondria (Mariner).

Berries to Spring Clean Your Brain

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

Maybe you are the type of person who is perfectly happy just knowing that certain foods (berries, for instance) are really good for you… or maybe you are the type who wants to know exactly how and why. If, like me, you fall into the second group, you’ll enjoy knowing that eating lots of berries is like regularly doing a fresh “spring cleaning” of your brain. Recent research shows that berries activate the brain’s natural “housekeeping” mechanism to clean out toxic proteins that build up over time and cause memory loss and other forms of mental decline.

I learned this intriguing bit of information from Shibu Poulose, PhD, a molecular biologist at the USDA’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.

With his colleagues at the USDA lab at Tufts, Dr. Poulose studies how blueberries, strawberries, acai and other berries (along with nuts) support brain health. Past research had demonstrated that berries’ high level of polyphenols, especially a class of flavonoids known as anthocyanins, possess powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties thought to protect cognitive function. Now we know more.

Mopping Up the Mess

The brain regularly consumes huge amounts of oxygen — 20% of our intake at rest and much more when we are actively thinking. All this activity generates a heavy load of oxidants and toxic proteins that build up in brain cells, damaging and even destroying them, perhaps contributing to neurological illnesses such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Autophagy — the scientific name for a cell’s natural housekeeping mechanism — normally breaks down, recycles and removes these waste products, with cells called microglia acting as the housekeepers. But as microglia become less efficient in aging brains, toxic debris accumulates and interferes with mental function.

The new research finding: Using cultures of mouse brain cells, Dr. Poulose discovered that berry extracts restore the brain’s natural housekeeping mechanism and prevent age-related brain-cell degeneration by activating genes responsible for toxic protein disposal. In related research, investigators found that walnut extract — an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and other antioxidant polyphenols — also decreases inflammation and encourages good neural housekeeping. Note: Flaxseed oil has the highest concentration of ALA.

Dr. Poulose presented these findings at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in August 2010. Another scientist, Barbara Shukitt-Hale, PhD (lead scientist of the Neuroscience Lab at USDA-HNRCA) and colleagues are now initiating a study of berry-containing diets in older men and women, with the ultimate goal of applying their results to human brain health.

Meanwhile, to keep your housekeeping cells hard at work and optimize your mental health in later years, Dr. Poulose advises eating plenty of polyphenol-rich, brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Include not just berries (frozen and fresh are both OK) in your diet, but also a variety of produce with deep bluish purple, red and orange hues (eggplant, beets, purple grapes, pomegranates, sweet potatoes, carrots, etc.). These colors come from antioxidant anthocyanin pigments. And while you’re at it, enjoy some raw walnuts — about an ounce a day. They’ll do your brain good!

Shibu Poulose, PhD, a molecular biologist at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.

Your Genes or Your Lifestyle — Which Matters Most?

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

If you’re searching for a plan to improve your cardiovascular health, then exercise and a healthy diet may be just what the doctor will order… but will it really make a difference if you have a family history of heart attack and stroke? Many people I’ve met over the years don’t think so, citing examples of people they know who don’t watch what they eat and yet have lived a long time, along with examples of other folks who ate healthfully yet died young from heart problems. Meanwhile we hear from health professionals that what you put into your stomach is absolutely a key to your health. So it’s a fair question: Is the diet mightier than the gene, or isn’t it?

On this point, I admit that over the years, my opinion has wavered from time to time… but now I’m siding squarely with the health pros. Here’s why: A recent study of adult twins found that those who followed a Mediterranean diet had better heart health than those who did not.

Reverse Genetic Risk

Genes are only part of our health story, explains Jeffrey S. Bland, PhD, FACN, FACB, author of the new book, Genetic Nutritioneering: How You Can Modify Inherited Traits and Live a Longer, Healthier Life. The propensity for certain health conditions that you inherit from your family is not, by a long shot, the sole determinant of whether or not most folks will get sick. Your lifestyle choices have a significant impact, especially when it comes to chronic illnesses such as heart disease.

The Mediterranean diet, rich in vegetables, fruits, grains and omega-3 fatty acids, is well known for its protective effects against cardiovascular disease. Researchers at Indiana University set out to ask a different question: Are these cardiovascular benefits independent of genes?

To determine the answer, they compared the food diaries of 276 middle-aged male twins (some fraternal and some identical) with the results of their electrocardiograms (ECGs), records of electrical activity of the heart. In particular, they looked at heart rate variability (HRV), the differences in time between heartbeats during daily activities. A higher variability is a sign of better heart function. (For information on heart-rate variability and what it means to your health, see Daily Health News, “Does Your Heart Rate Vary?”, August 10, 2009.)

The researchers scored the twins’ food questionnaires according to how closely they matched the Mediterranean diet, with close adherence reflected by a high score. They found that higher scores were associated with higher HRVs — even in the group of identical twins with shared genes and certain shared environmental factors. The authors concluded that “whether or not a person has an adverse genetic background or other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, this person would be likely to have better cardiac autonomic function if he/she follows a diet similar to the Mediterranean diet.” In other words, the old excuse for eating that big slice of New York cheesecake — “Why worry? It’s all in the genes!” — just doesn’t stand up.

Living Healthfully Matters More

Researchers have identified many genes implicated in illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, and recent studies demonstrate that our genes are not necessarily our destiny. Just because heart disease or cancer “runs in your family” does not mean that you will fall prey to it. In fact, Dr. Bland told me that “positive environmental stimuli” — which he defines as a healthful diet… a lifestyle that includes plenty of exercise… sufficient management of stress… and reasonable avoidance of disease-causing microbes and pollutants — can effectively “turn off” genes that cause disease and “turn on” those that promote wellness.

More research is needed to explore the precise relationship between heart disease and underlying genetic susceptibilities. In the meantime, to positively modify your own “gene expression” against heart disease, Dr. Bland recommends…

  • Make your menu Mediterranean. Adopt healthful, tasty elements of the Mediterranean diet, such as more fresh fruits and vegetables (at least nine servings daily), nuts and legumes, whole grains, two or three servings of fish a week and moderate consumption of monounsaturated fatty acids (e.g., olives and olive oil).

Dr. Bland’s advice: Eat plenty of cruciferous vegetables such as kale, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. These are rich in heart-healthy fiber and nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, folic acid and vitamin C.

  • Junk the junk food. Reduce your intake of processed products, items made with refined flour and sugar and inflammatory fats (trans and saturated), such as pizza, and other fast food, white bread, doughnuts, candy and soft drinks.

Dr. Bland’s advice: To reduce sugar intake and flush toxins out of your body, replace all beverages with water.

  • Balance your life. Strive for an optimal balance of rest and exercise. Whenever possible, make time for daily aerobic activity (e.g., fast walking or biking) and stress management (meditation, yoga, deep breathing, etc.) — ideally 20 to 30 minutes for each.

Dr. Bland’s advice: Get adequate sleep at night — on average seven to eight hours — to help reduce stress, maintain a healthy weight and improve health potential.

  • Take your health seriously. It is possible that you may have underlying infections even if they aren’t making you ill in obvious ways. Chronic or hidden infections with microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, yeasts or parasites often lay at the root of heart disease.

Dr. Bland suggests: See your doctor if you aren’t feeling right to determine whether you need blood tests to identify unknown issues. A healthy lifestyle with adequate nutrition, regular exercise and effective stress management will strengthen the immune system and help to suppress infections.

It’s true that your genetic profile was determined long before you were born, but Dr. Bland urges everyone to be aware that decisions you make every day of your life to control environmental and dietary choices are very important — perhaps more important — in protecting you from disease. Each day you commit to treating your body well, you reduce your risk for illness and improve your health potential.

Jeffrey S. Bland, PhD, FACN, FACB, nutritional biochemist and registered clinical laboratory director, founder, Institute for Functional Medicine, chief science officer, Metagenics, Inc. (www.Metagenics.com), a provider of medical foods and lifestyle medicine programs, based in Gig Harbor, Washington. He is author of Genetic Nutritioneering: How You Can Modify Inherited Traits and Live a Longer, Healthier Life and The 20-Day Rejuvenation Diet Program (both from McGraw-Hill). www.JeffreyBland.com.

Is Mentally Ill the New “Normal”?

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

Is the normal person an endangered species?

Psychiatrist Allen Frances, MD, posed that question in a recent essay published in Psychiatric Times, discussing what appears to be an epidemic of mental illness in our country. Here’s a startling example: The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 20% to 25% of the US adult population — that makes about 45 million of us — has a diagnosable mental disorder. Is this possible? Or might the real problem be that doctors are overdiagnosing people who are simply experiencing expectable ups and downs of life or who just have personality quirks.

Dr. Frances believes that it is the latter. I found his essay so intriguing that I called him to chat about some of these provocative ideas. He told me that these past few decades have brought us one psychiatric fad after another, with the rapidly escalating diagnoses of autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and even bipolar disorder among our children and, in adults, the increasing numbers of people being labeled as having such conditions as anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, ADD/ADHD, depression and more.

Is Everyone Sick?

Dr. Frances is a professor emeritus at Duke University School of Medicine and was the chair of the DSM IV Task Force, the committee that worked from 1987 to 1994 to update the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the book that provides criteria for mental disorder diagnoses that is the bible of the mental health community (and which provides the basis for insurance coverage for treatment for mental illness). First published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1952, this essential tome gets updated every 15 to 20 years to ensure that it reflects the current state of knowledge of psychiatry, psychology and medicine as it pertains to mental disorders. But, Dr. Francis told me, the very process of regularly revising this manual may have contributed to the problem. Here are some highlights from our conversation…

Daily Health News: How does it happen that a mental disorder becomes what you call a “psychiatric fad”?

Dr. Frances: When the DSM is updated, we want to be sure that the criteria don’t miss anyone who suffers from a disorder, but our good intentions have unintended consequences — overdiagnosis is now causing far too many people to get caught in the psychiatric net. Unfortunately, there is no good way to determine the exact correct threshold of symptoms that turns a person who is more or less normal into one who has a psychiatric problem, but any time you see a significant and sudden jump in diagnoses of a particular disorder, there is reason to worry.

DHN: What is an example of a current psychiatric disorder fad?

Dr. Frances: Major depression is an important example of diagnostic inflation — 10% of the population now qualifies and is taking antidepressant medication. The criteria that psychiatrists use for major depressive disorder include feeling sad and tired and with reduced pleasure, appetite and sleep, for as little as two weeks, even if the mild symptoms are the result of painful life events. At least half the time, those symptoms will resolve on their own, usually within a few weeks — all too frequently these essentially normal people who are undergoing stress get labeled as having major depression and are put on medication to treat it. When they feel better, they may assume incorrectly that the medicine did the trick, not just time and their own resilience.

Drug Companies Are Part of the Problem

DHN: Can you talk about the role the pharmaceutical industry has played in creating these psychiatric fads?

Dr. Frances: Drug companies have one salesperson for every seven physicians, and they target primary care doctors, who do most of the prescribing of psychiatric drugs. The drug companies also aggressively market psychiatric diagnoses and drugs directly to patients on television, in print media and on the Internet. So patients come in primed to think that they might have a psychiatric disorder — they’re even told to “ask your doctor” about a drug to treat it. For example, a growing fad now is the issue of low libido in women resulting from efforts by the pharmaceutical industry to get women to think they have an inadequate sex life and so should pop a pill. At the same time, there is no pushback to advertising right now, no campaign to support normality. There’s also no widespread education the about placebo effect and the risk/benefit ratio of drugs. The issue of unnecessary medication being prescribed and drug side effects is by far the biggest danger of fads.

DHN: Can you explain what being given an erroneous diagnosis means to people?

Dr. Frances: Let’s take autism as an example. In the DSM IV, we included a broader definition of a condition called Asperger’s syndrome (the mildest form of autism, characterized by problems with social skills, communication and coordination… eccentric or repetitive behavior… rituals or unusual preoccupations… exceptional talent or skill in a single area… and a limited range of interests) because we wanted to be sure that these patients would have access to treatment, such as special education and behavior modification therapy. We were surprised by an enormous twenty-fold increase in diagnoses! This is almost certainly due to a change in diagnostic habits, as we have no credible evidence that anything in the environment is causing such an increase. Rather, it is the labels that change and how they are used in practice. The diagnosis of autism is now being loosely used to explain all sorts of milder eccentricities and social difficulties.

Another troubling example is the vast overdiagnosis of bipolar disorder in children, which has seen an even greater (forty-fold) increase in the past 20 years. This means that kids who may be nothing more than irritable and difficult to manage end up taking unnecessary antipsychotic drugs over long periods of time. The serious side effects of these drugs can include obesity, diabetes, heart disease and perhaps shorter life spans.

DHN: What other risks to patients are associated with psychiatric fads?

Dr. Frances: Many people absolutely need the drugs that they are taking, but many others with mild and transient symptoms are taking potentially harmful medications that they do not need. Medicalizing “normalcy” means that we are spending huge health and educational resources on people who don’t need treatment or services — and for whom it might even be dangerous, as in the case of medication. This distracts attention and diverts funds from others who do need such help. Another problem is that there is a stigma involved in being diagnosed with a psychiatric condition, especially in childhood, when the diagnosis implies a lifelong one. Such a label lowers expectations for behavior and accomplishments and, later on, having the diagnosis can threaten an individual’s chances of getting a desirable job and health insurance.

Do You Really Need That Pill?

DHN: What advice do you have for people who are concerned that they or their children might be suffering from a mental disorder?

Dr. Frances: Never go off a drug without medical supervision, but do think carefully about your diagnosis and whether you really know that you need that pill you are being given. Make a careful evaluation of the problem. Psychiatric symptoms that are mild, relatively recent and/or a response to stress often get better on their own or with counseling and don’t require medication. When people start to feel better, they think it is the drug that is helping even though the placebo effect accounts for up to 50% of positive responses to medication. People may cling to an unnecessary drug and stay on it way too long. Be well-informed and periodically reevaluate your diagnosis and treatment.

Allen Frances, MD, former chair of the Task Force for DSM IV, professor emeritus, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, North Carolina.

Amazingly Simple Pain-Relief Trick

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

We generally assume that when something hurts, the pain is caused by a real biological event — a wound, an infection, a sprain. But this isn’t always the case. For instance, consider the dramatic example of phantom limb pain, in which people experience sensations — most often pain — in an arm or leg that has been amputated. It’s puzzling… and oddly fascinating… all the more so now that neuroscientists have discovered that they can use mirrors (in a complicated arrangement) to trick the brain into “seeing” the missing limb as present — and that doing so causes the pain to stop! Recently I read about a new effort in which UK scientists have started to develop simpler tricks that people with any kind of pain can do themselves — no mirrors needed (no drugs either) — to “fool” their brains into perceiving less pain. It involves simply touching your own body in a certain way. It sounds so appealing — does it really work?

The Brain’s Point of View

We will have to wait awhile to see published results on this research, but I didn’t want to wait to learn more about something that sounded so simple, promising and safe! I placed a call to pain psychologist Beth Darnall, PhD, at the Oregon Health & Science University, to ask her opinion on the idea of using your own touch to control pain.

Dr. Darnall told me that this works because of a process that scientists call “brain signaling.” An ample body of research has shown that often the brain does not distinguish between what is real (that you can see and touch) and what it just believes to be true based on experience. Furthermore, she said, research shows that just thinking negatively about pain can create biochemical changes that show up in MRI brain scans when areas associated with pain light up. In other words, people can literally grow their pain through their thoughts — so it also makes sense, Dr. Darnall says, that people can use their brains to banish it.

Mind Over Pain

So what can we do with this intriguing research finding? Here’s Dr. Darnall’s advice on how to put it to use right now…

The first step is to become aware of the extent to which chronic pain triggers anxiety and catastrophic thinking (chronic thoughts and feelings of helplessness and doom). This increases stress and worsens pain, so it is crucial to establish ways to calm and center your body and mind — otherwise you’ll be “at the mercy of anything in the environment, including your own body,” said Dr. Darnall. She suggested that a type of counseling called cognitive behavior therapy can be a good way to learn how to eliminate anxiety and catastrophic thinking, noting that studies show that such therapy actually can change — physically change — the neural networks of the brain and make them healthier.

As far as the self-touch method for pain relief, Dr. Darnall told me about a technique she developed called “bilateral tactile stimulation” that you can learn to use on yourself for pain relief — though it’s important to start with a practitioner in order to experience how it is properly done. Note: Psychotherapists trained in either Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) or Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) are the ones most likely to be familiar with this technique.

How it works: Sitting in front of the client, the therapist leads him/her through a guided visualization or deep-relaxation exercise while lightly and rapidly tapping one side and then the other of (for example) the back of the knees or hands — a place that is easy to reach and comfortable but not the painful spot. This is done for one to three minutes. According to Dr. Darnall, this works to reduce pain in the following ways…

  • Tapping while also doing a guided visualization seems to help patients encode positive images, feelings and thoughts more quickly.
  • In turn, this helps put a stop to the cycle of pain, stress and the body’s inflammatory response by keeping the brain from focusing on helplessness and how much it hurts.
  • Lastly, this technique can help deepen the relaxation response, thereby releasing the muscle tension that pain causes and, with it, the pain itself. In other words, the tapping helps to encode and anchor information in the brain, including the information that the patient is fully relaxed and pain-free.

The At-Home Version

Once you are familiar with the process and feel ready to try it on yourself, Dr. Darnall suggests an at-home process to follow:

  • Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Because it is crucial to feel calm before using this technique, listen to a relaxation-response CD (many are available online and at health-food stores), meditate or do some diaphragmatic breathing to first get centered.
  • Once you are relaxed and calm, focus on envisioning positive images. Create an image of yourself hurting less and functioning better. Concentrate on how good it feels to move without pain… to experience joy… or to accomplish goals you set for yourself.
  • Now, alternating one side of the body and the other, tap your knees, legs or upper arms — whatever location you have chosen where you can easily reach and you have sensation (no numbness). Using the opposite hand (e.g., left hand on right knee, right hand on left knee), tap at a rate of two or three taps per second, all the while continuing your positive imagery, as described above. Start with sessions of about three minutes, and gradually add more time in later sessions if you wish.

As you become more practiced at this simple pain-relief technique, Dr. Darnall suggested trying to expand your vision of yourself, creating new visualizations where you picture yourself moving more easily around your life, pain-free, exercising and engaging in other activities you enjoy. Keep tapping as you do this… consider it a source of positive energy that you can “tap” at any time you wish!


Beth Darnall, PhD, assistant professor, department of anesthesiology and perioperative medicine, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland.

Sauna Health Benefits Equal to Exercise

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

We know that “working up a sweat” is healthy when it involves being physically active — but what about the more relaxing ways to achieve that damp, rosy glow? I’m talking about saunas and steam rooms, both common in spas, gyms and hotels — and, increasingly, in private homes. They certainly feel good (especially for those of us suffering through a long, cold winter), but many people, including health practitioners, believe that steam rooms and saunas also have unique therapeutic benefits, including relaxing and soothing tired muscles… reducing chronic pain… detoxifying skin and bodily tissue… clearing out sinuses… even improving cardiovascular health.

Is there any merit to the claims — all of them or just some? Which is better, the dry heat of a sauna or the moist heat of a steam room? I called Walter J. Crinnion, ND, director of the environmental medicine department at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona, and author of the book Clean, Green & Lean to discuss these hot health topics.

Wet or Dry — Which is Best?

First, let’s understand how steam rooms and saunas differ. The primary difference between the two relates to humidity. Steam rooms use moist heat, pumping water vapor through vents into enclosed rooms to create temperatures of about 110°F, with 80% to 100% humidity. Saunas, on the other hand, essentially cook rocks so that they emanate dry heat to an ambient temperature as high as 160°F to 200°F, with humidity that is only from 15% to about 20%. The dry heat allows for the higher temperature — moist air at that temperature would burn the skin, nostrils and lungs, and potentially cause the body to overheat.

According to Dr. Crinnion, both steam and sauna can claim many of the same health benefits, including improving blood circulation and strengthening the immune system by inducing a mild and temporary “fever” that stimulates antibodies and other disease fighters in the body. For most people, the difference is a matter of personal preference — some people say that the moist air feels restorative, while others find it oppressive. Some relish the dry heat in a sauna, but others say the aridity is uncomfortable.

Though the scientific evidence is lacking, there is lots of anecdotal evidence that the moistness of steam rooms provides at least temporary relief for people with respiratory problems, whether from a cold or flu, bronchitis, allergies or asthma. The high humidity seems to help thin and clear mucus, thereby reducing congestion in the lungs and sinuses. Some people also find that the wet heat in steam rooms soothes joint pain and makes their skin look better.

Sauna Health Benefits — a Hot Research Topic

In contrast, there’s quite a bit of research supporting the health benefits of saunas, so much so that Dr. Crinnion calls their dry heat a “wonderful therapeutic modality.” Here is some of the research…

  • A number of studies show that sauna therapy is helpful for people with congestive heart failure and ventricular arrhythmias. Sauna sessions are the cardiovascular equivalent to a moderate workout, increasing cardiac rate and respiration.
  • Among men who’d had a mild heart attack, studies showed that spending 15 to 30 minutes in a sauna several times a week reduced the incidence of angina and hypertension.
  • A new study found that young women who spent 30 minutes in a sauna every other day over two weeks increased HDL “good” cholesterol and slightly decreased LDL “bad” cholesterol, pointing to its value in supporting heart health for other populations as well.

Dr. Crinnion told me that he believes saunas also are helpful as an ancillary therapy in eliminating toxins for people with a range of conditions, including toxin-associated cancers… heavy metal toxicity (lead or mercury poisoning)… chronic neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease or ALS… and autoimmune diseases. For such patients, he often prescribes intense sauna therapy, typically a half-hour to an hour twice weekly for multiple weeks.

Safe Use Guidelines

Whichever you prefer, steam or sauna, Dr. Crinnion said it’s smart to check with your doctor before using either — and that’s imperative if you have any type of medical condition. Note: Pregnant women and people with aortic valve stenosis should avoid both steam and sauna.

Because they increase sweating, both steam and sauna can be dehydrating. Avoid alcohol for at least a few hours before and afterward, and drink plenty of fluids — eight ounces for every 15 minutes of time spent in the heat. This is especially important for people taking antibiotics or blood pressure medications, both of which are dehydrating.

The maximum amount of time advised for steam rooms is no more than 20 minutes, while sauna sessions routinely run up to 30 minutes (the dry heat doesn’t raise the body temperature so quickly).

And one more caveat — any public place can harbor pathogens, but steam rooms in particular can breed an abundance of microbes and fungi. Protect yourself by wearing flip-flops or shower shoes and, whether you are heading into a steam room or sauna, remember the towel to sit on — for your own protection and as a courtesy to other users.


Walter J. Crinnion, ND, professor and director of the environmental medicine department at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, Tempe, Arizona.