What Vaginal Steam Baths Are Really Like: An OB/GYN Weighs In
Yeah. You heard me. I said vaginal steam baths.
You already know how we Californians like our colonics. (The story of my first colonic is here. And yes, I paid good money for that experience.) Well, apparently, some of us like to have our coochies steamed, too.
Now, I'm a gynecologist, a pretty woo-woo integrative medicine doctor from the Bay area, and the author of a book called What's Up Down There.
I've done a book tour in which women are regularly asking me questions like, "If a woman dies during her period, do they take the tampon out before they bury her?" So I've pretty much heard it all. And it's pretty dang hard to shock me.
But I have to admit that I did a double take when I read about Gwyneth and others electively steaming their vaginas.
I mean, I'm all for it. Why not give your hoo-ha a facial? After all the abuse we inflict up them in the form of Pap smears, Brazilians, and thongs, our vulvas and vaginas could use some TLC, eh?
Vaginal Steam Baths Are Not What You Think
But it's not meant as a beauty treatment. According to the Tikkun Holistic Spa in Los Angeles (where Gwyneth goes), this technique has roots in Korean tradition. Spa manager Jin Young told the Los Angeles Times that vaginal steam baths (aka "chai-yok"), "reduce stress, fight infections, clear hemorrhoids, regulate menstrual cycles and aid infertility, among many other health benefits."
The secret is not so much the steam itself, but what's in it. If you're lucky enough to receive such a spa treatment, you perch naked on an open-seated stool, above a steaming brew of mugwort tea laced with wormwood and other Chinese herbs. Copping a squat for this "V-Steam" treatment takes 30-45 minutes, and will run you anywhere from $20 to $75.
At Daengki Spa in Koreatown, proprietors claim the treatment will "rid the body of toxins" and help women with menstrual cramps, bladder infections, kidney problems and fertility issues. Which seems like a big claim for a little pot of tea steam.
That same Times article quoted a women who swears by it. She said that, at 45 years old, after three years of trying to conceive, five V-Steams resulted in a pregnancy—as well as more energy and fewer body aches.
But one anecdote certainly doesn't equal evidence or causality.
So What Do I Think?
Well, it's certainly not anything I ever learned about in medical school. And I haven't read about it in any medical journals. But it's not completely implausible that vaginal delivery of specific Chinese herbs might have some benefit.
After all, the vagina, with its extensive blood flow and thirsty mucous membranes, readily absorbs medications. And Chinese medicine doctors, naturopathic doctors, and many acupuncturists have been using herbs to treat all kinds of medical conditions, including the ones the spas claim the V-Steam can help. I've even prescribed herbal vaginal suppositories to help women's immune systems fight HPV, the virus that can cause abnormal Pap smears, genital warts, and cervical cancer.
Hell, it's the whole concept behind the trend for party girls who want to get drunk at work to insert vodka-soaked tampons into their vaginas so they can get wasted without having their breath reflect their indulgence. So it doesn't seem so far out there to me.
But it really all comes down to the active ingredients.
Mugwort and Wormwood: What Are They And How Do They Work?
Now we're getting way out of the realm of my personal expertise. So I had to do my homework and seek guidance from those I trust.
Turns out that mugwort is commonly used in a Chinese medicine treatment called "moxibustion." It's used to help turn breech babies, so the mother can deliver vaginally. It also causes uterine contractions, and so has been used as an abortion agent.
And according to Karen Reynolds, an acupuncturist I refer to at Balance Restored in Mill Valley, CA, "This type of treatment aids in fertility as it moves and strengthens Qi (energy), which is exactly in keeping with what the Asian practitioner states in the LA Times article:
"Many infertility problems are related to coldness and stagnation," Choo says. "The chai-yok treatment is effective for coldness or poor circulation in the lower part of the body because it increases the blood circulation, and blood supplies nutrition, so the more blood supply, the faster the healing process."
So the using mugwort in a vaginal steam bath might make some sense. However, Karen also says, "I'm a bit uneasy with touting some of the other claims about mugwort."
Wormwood (which incidentally is an ingredient in the legendary drink absinthe) is an herb used to treat gastric disorders, as an antiseptic, to help reduce fevers, and to help pregnant women with labor pains.
Karen says, "People use wormwood is used widely for malaria. It's a clear summerheat herb in our Materia Medica. I would be more hesitant about including it unless a woman tends toward repeated bacterial/viral vaginal infections. The active component of wormwood is artemisinin, which can be neurotoxic. So if I were creating a vaginal steam regimen, I would leave it out. (Just my two herbalist cents)."
Karen says, "You can use Chinese herbs in many, many forms traditionally, not just orally. For example, there are topical poultices for spider bites and vaginal/rectal applications to treat infections. That being the case, steam is not so whacky within the herbal world."
And why not? Assuming the temperature is controlled to make absolutely sure you don't burn your tender skin and membranes down there, it seems like a relaxing way to take your medicine.
We Just Don't Know
There's no scientific evidence to support or reject the claims made by advocates of vaginal steam baths, so the truth of the matter is that we just don't know whether they offer any health benefit. But I'm not one to knock ancient Eastern health care practices, so who knows?
I'm a big fan of checking in with your gut (and your lady bits!) What does your body tell you? Is this for you? Do you believe this will benefit you? If not, skip it. But if the wisdom of your body speaks to you and says, "YES! This is the answer for me," pay attention.
That little voice can be much wiser than any randomized controlled double-blinded clinical trial. And as long as you're not putting your body in danger (I personally doubt you are), what's the harm? Worst case scenario, you're out $50 and the pores of your vulvar skin are squeaky clean and tightly closed. And if it works to help you meet your goals, more power to ya.
Your body knows best. Trust it. No matter what Gwyneth tells you.
Continually amazed by the wonders of modern medicine & ancient wisdom,
Lissa Rankin, MD