The first order of business is to strip down and cover my naked body with a giant shapeless garment that offers no armholes, just an elastic band that cinches at the neck, making me look like a life-sized Hershey’s Kiss. The second order, once I’m in the literal sack, is to settle myself and my tent over a chair with a hole cut out of the bottom (yes, like an outhouse seat). Under the hole in the chair, there is portable single burner—a hot plate, really—heating a bubbling cauldron of medicinal herbs.
The broth is steaming hot, and all of that steam is swirling around my exposed nether regions, captured in place by the sheet. Soon I am pouring sweat out of everywhere but my head, which is poking out of the top. I have a few minutes of wondering if perhaps the heat is cranked too high, and I find myself fluffing the sheet to allow some cool air in. But this so-called “hip bath” treatment is not entirely unpleasant, and eventually, I find myself relaxing over the course of my 30-minute stint on the seat. I’m a little disappointed when my time is up—I could do another 15, I think to myself.
The hip bath that I experienced took place at a 24-hour Korean spa in New Jersey called King Spa, where customers steam in a communal apothecary room, over a broth made primarily of mugwort. King Spa is far from the only place to offer this type of treatment, which is also sometimes called a “V-Steam.” Gwyneth Paltrow raised more than a few eyebrows when she recommended the mugwort V-Steam treatment at Tikkun Holistic Spa in Los Angeles in her GOOP newsletter in 2015, writing that the treatment “cleanses your uterus” and provides “an energetic release…that balances female hormone levels.” Korean spas in Chicago, New York, and California offer the service, and there’s even a DIY kit available online.
Other proponents of the treatment claim that it can help with everything from stimulating the production of hormones, to restarting regular menstrual cycles, to fighting infections and easing the effects of arthritis or gout. The origin of the treatment itself is unclear—unsubstantiated conflicting reports point alternately to ancient Korea, South America, or Africa—but the basic idea is that the steam increases circulation to the pelvis, which means dilated blood vessels, increased oxygenation, and a relaxing of the pelvic floor muscles. Like many natural treatments, clinically-approved insight is hard to come by (more on that in a minute), but herbal medicine advice abounds. (Here are the best herbal medicines for women.)
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Here is what we do know about mugwort and wormwood, two of the most common herbs used in the treatment. The former, according to Amy Myszko, a certified clinical herbalist and nutritional consultant, can be used to help treat stomach and intestinal disorders (including cramps), along with menstrual or menopausal issues, and may be able to help protect the uterus from tumors. Wormwood—the same herb that absinthe is made out of—has traditionally been used to treat liver problems, digestive issues, and menstrual problems, and may be useful for minimizing uterine fibroids. Both also have natural antibacterial properties.
Most Western medical practitioners are dubious of the practice. “I can’t find any studies that show from a medical perspective that there are any beneficial effects,” says Jacquelyn Stone, MD, FACOG who practices with Maven Clinic in New York. “If you put heat on an area of the body, it will increase blood flow, but it won’t be sustained, so it won’t have that effect for very long. And there’s no way for steam to penetrate into your uterus.” (Here are more dos and don’ts of healing sore muscles.)
Christen B. Adkins, chief resident physician in obstetrics and gynecology at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in New Jersey, agreed, noting that little formal research has been done to support the hip bath benefit claims. “Also, the concept of a vaginal treatment with any antibiotic properties that isn’t for an actual bacterial infection is in fact deleterious,” she adds. “The vagina is naturally colonized with bacteria, and depleting it of these microbes can affect vaginal pH and even cause bacterial vaginosis. This is the same reason we don’t recommend vaginal douching.”
Keep your lady parts in tip-top shape with these vagina dos and don’ts:
But not all OB/GYNs are so opposed. Dr. Eden Fromberg, a Board certified Obstetrician/Gynecologist who is also Board certified in Integrative Holistic Medicine, recently heard about the steam bath treatment from an acupuncturist friend and bought a stool to install in her own office in New York City. “People understand the idea of moist steam being applied to relax the tissue locally in the body, and further open the channels that go into the connective tissue,” she says. “Because we absorb things through the skin, if you put an herb that has a certain activity in traditional use into the steam, those herbal constituents will then enter the body through those channels, and have an effect.” She compares it to “vaping” for the vagina, as the mucous surface in the vagina absorbs molecules in the vapor into the body.
Fromberg says that mugwort can help with rheumatoid arthritis or joint pain and hip issues, along with “detox issues and possibly with infections.” But she also plans to experiment with other herbs in her own steam baths, including oregano, which she says can help with UTIs and yeast infections; goldenfield, which can help accelerate mucus discharge from the body; echinacea, which can help strengthen the immune system; chamomile for menstrual issues, and black or blue cohosh, which is used in traditional midwifery medicine to affect the relationship between the ovaries and pituitaries. “There’s certainly no harm to it,” she says. “It’s important to learn from ancient techniques. I’m looking forward to innovating with this and experiencing it myself.”
So, there you have it. Although there’s little medical proof to back up the purported benefits, there’s also little harm in perching yourself about a bubbling cauldron of hot herbs for half an hour. At the very least, it makes for a good story.
The article I Tried A So-Called Vaginal Steam—Here’s What Happened originally appeared on Rodale’s Organic Life.