2265 North Clybourn Avenue    Chicago, IL 60614    P: 773.296.6700     F: 773.296.1131

A Good Schvitz: Alternative Medicine At Its Finest

Head west on Division from Ashland and in the 1900 block, on the north side of the street, you’ll see a building that looks like an old bank. Park in one of the small lots on either side of it. While the neighborhood was once a bit risky, it’s now completely safe, upscale and laden with the telltale sushi places, sports bars, and coffee houses of urban gentrification.

Take a minute to look up as you approach the front door. You’re about to enter some living Chicago history: a genuine schvitz, an Eastern European bathhouse rebuilt to better than its glory days.

The Division Street Russian and Turkish Bath House first opened in (are you ready?) 1906. That’s right, the newly renamed, beautifully remodeled Red Square Cafe Lounge is 107 years old. Click to view some interior shots and take a brief tour of the bathhouse/spa and its restaurant (after a short commercial).

Bathhouses are both ancient and cross-cultural
You can go to a banya in Russia, a 400-year-old hammam in Istanbul, a sauna in Finland, or a jjimjilbang in Korea and you’re still getting basically the same experience–a gender-segregated heated steambath, sauna, or both.

At one time, with immigrants wanting to recreate one of the few pleasures of the old country, Chicago boasted dozens of bathhouses for just about every ethnic group. The Division Street establishment catered mainly to Russian Jews. My father, age ten at the time, went with my grandfather some time around 1923. I myself went for the first time at about age 12 and remember only a dim, steamy environment filled with towel-clad fat and hairy Yiddish-speaking men who smoked cigars, pinched my cheek, and called me “Boychik!”

The experience kept me from returning for decades.

As the Jews moved to the suburbs and bought their own in-home saunas, and as Division Street started tanking in the 1960s, the fortunes of the bathhouse paralleled the decline. But patrons kept schvitzing, me included. During the years I periodically revisited, the bathhouse became more multicultural and by the time it closed, Yiddish seemed to have become extinct. You’d hear more Russian and Spanish in the steam rooms than English. History was changing the baths yet again. Novelist Saul Bellow had been a regular, as was Jesse Jackson, Jesse White, and several pre-penitentiary Chicago aldermen.

The new Red Square Cafe Lounge that opened just a few weeks ago is a marvel. First, and most important, are the separate facilities for women. A woman alone can enter, have an entire schvitz experience, including a massage, and feel completely at ease during her entire visit. (This was not necessarily the case with earlier iterations of the bathhouse.)

You check in at the front desk, pay an all-day fee of $30, and get a pair of rubber clogs and a locker key with a microchip that records any other purchases. Then walk down a set of stairs and receive a terrycloth robe, towels, and a sort of toga to wrap yourself in. After you change, you enter the bath area. To your left, a steam room and a hot tub, to your right a sauna and an ice-water plunge pool. As a break between your various hot and cold bath experiences, there’s a row of lounge chairs with reading lights. If you like, someone will bring you a beer, a beverage that tastes astonishingly good after a schvitz.

And if you’re hungry, there’s a Russian restaurant upstairs as well as a full bar stocked with (naturally) about 25 brands of vodka.

Are regular steams and saunas good for you?
The answer, like much in alternative medicine, is that it depends who you read. Let’s face it, in a sauna you’re cooked to about 190 degrees F, perhaps a few degrees lower in a steam room. Is this healthy? I saved a lot of time after discovering the research done by Chicago Reader columnist Cecil Adams, whose weekly Straight Dope has been “Fighting Ignorance Since 1973 (it’s taking longer than we thought).”

For some people, yes.  Some research says saunas and steambaths can help people with chronic heart failure, asthma, or chronic bronchitis. It makes a lot of sense—as your body heats, circulation changes. Your arteries open and your heart pumps more forcefully, sort of like what happens during an aerobics class. For someone with chronic heart failure, this exercise-like state is a positive because it strengthens the heart muscle. In those with asthma or chronic bronchitis, the steam lubricates bronchial linings and thins mucus. Heating up in a steambath or sauna also increases mobility and probably helps reduce pain in those with arthritis. Finally, the artificial fever created by steam or sauna supposedly activates your immune system and increases your resistance to cold and flu viruses.

So how is a schvitz alternative medicine? Because of a steambath’s ability to increase endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in your brain that work as natural painkillers. Also because when muscles are warmed they soften, becoming more amenable to massage. Fibromyalgia patients feel immensely better after a steam, sauna, or hot tub and pretty much feel worse in cold water or winter, when muscles tighten up. Finally, for most people, heat combined with water equals immense relaxation, the very antithesis of stress. (Add a massage and you might hear angels sing.)

For others, not so much.  Saunas, steams, and hot tubs are a bad idea during pregnancy, and are also not recommended for certain heart conditions, like angina or arrhythmias. Saunas and steambaths have been widely promoted for weight loss and detoxification, but there’s really little evidence they work for either. You can sweat off a pound or two in a couple of hours, but gain it right back when you replenish your fluids. The “increased metabolism” that allegedly occurs during a sauna does boost your heart rate, but probably doesn’t burn enough calories to count as a weight-loss aid.

Despite all sorts of claims to the contrary, there’s very little evidence that steam and sauna remove toxins from your body. Yes, we do store toxins in our fat tissue and when we lose weight we reduce our body’s toxic load. But we can’t clear the toxins held in our fatty tissue by perspiring in a sauna or steamroom. Chemical analysis of sweat pretty much shows that it’s…simply sweat and not laden with the poisons we’d like to clear out. We actually excrete the toxins we’re exposed to through the liver, kidneys, and digestive tract.

The notion that toxins from fatty tissue can be sweated out is categorically denied by toxicology experts.

Still, misinformation abounds. In his book Detox Diets for Dummies, author Gerald Don Wootan, DO, states “multiple studies have shown that saunas are effective in removing solvents, organic chemicals, PCBs, pharmaceuticals, and heavy metal toxins from the human body.”  But after spending far too much time trying to verify this, I couldn’t find a single one of these “multiple studies” in any medical journal.

Scientology’s guru L. Ron Hubbard did write extensively about detoxing via sauna, and his books seem to be the source of everyone else’s “multiple studies” (including, ironically, Dr Oz’s). Some time ago, I was approached by the Scientologists about being a medical advisor for Hubbard’s detoxification program, called the Purification Rundown or Purif. He believed the only way to deal with the long-term effects of drug abuse or previous exposure to toxins was literally to “heat” them out of fat cells, where he thought they were stored.

However, Hubbard’s prescription of five hours a day in a sauna, plus intensive exercise, plus high doses of niacin (the well-known niacin “flush” he believed would flush out toxins) struck me then, as it does now, as risky and pretty unscientific. So I turned down their offer, but not before I signed over my entire bank account and the title to my home.

Only kidding. Go have a schvitz.

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD

 

Leave a Comment


  1. Donna Dufner says:

    I went to that bath house in the early 70’s. Ladies day was on Thursday I think. It was fun to spend time with friends and relaX there.

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, delicious and time-saving recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!

BIRTHDAY

Health Tips

Dr. Edelberg’s Health Tips contain concise bits of advice, medical news, nutritional supplement and pharmaceutical updates, and stress relief ideas. With every Health Tip, you’ll also receive an easy, delicious, and healthful recipe.

When you sign up to receive Health Tips, you can look forward to Dr. Edelberg’s smart and very current observations arriving in your in-box weekly. They’re packed with helpful information and are often slightly irreverent. One of the most common responses to the tips is “I wish my doctor talked to me like this!”

Quick Connect

Get One Click Access to our

patient-portal

The Knowledge Base

Patient education is an integral part of our practice. Here you will find a comprehensive collection of staff articles, descriptions of therapies and nutritional supplements, information addressing your health concerns, and the latest research on nutritional supplements and alternative therapies.

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!

Upcoming Workshops

**Pain Relief with Myofascial Balls
Tuesday, October 29, 6-8pm
With Renee Zambo, C-IAYT Yoga Therapist

Course Fee: $65.00
(includes WholeHealth Chicago Myofascial Release Kit, $40 value)

Does that same spot in your neck, shoulders, back or hips seem to bother you every day? Do you have joint aches and pains in the hands and feet? Would you like to learn ways to alleviate that pain and tension?

Join WholeHealth Chicago’s Yoga and Movement Therapist Renee Zambo for an evening of muscle tension release with myofascial therapy balls.

Space is limited and registration is required.
Please register online.
Call the Center for additional information at (773) 296-6700
More>>

Recent Health Tips

  • Dandruff, Fungi, and Cancer of the Pancreas

    It’s an eye-catching title, I’ll admit. But the links are quite real and further research may guide medicine in new directions of cancer prevention and treatment. It all starts in your gut microbiome, the totality of microorganisms–bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi–present in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, mouth to anus. Until recently, researchers and clinical physicians alike paid virtually no attention to the microbiome and the Read More

  • New Hope For Sinus Sufferers

    When osteopath Dr. Rob Ivker moved to Colorado in the 1980s to set up his family practice, he had no idea that when he stepped off the plane he’d succumb to symptoms of chronic sinusitis that just wouldn’t go away: stuffy nose, thick mucus, pressure behind his cheekbones and above his eyebrows, dull aching headache, and thick goopy drainage in the back of his throat. Read More

  • Director of IV Therapies Katie McManigal, BSN, ANP

    Most people at some point in their lives have had an intravenous (IV) line. An adept nurse warned you about the tiny pinch of the needle as it was smoothly inserted and taped in place.  Then the  fluid dangling above your head slowly started making its way through a tube and into your body. IVs are all over the place in hospitals. They’re seen in Read More

October Sale – Save 20% off UltraMeal Rice

UltraMeal RICE is a tasty, non-dairy, nutritionally fortified, powdered meal replacement for those who want to support healthy body composition but may be sensitive to soy.

Click here to take advantage of this month’s promotion!