Steaming for respiratory well-being | Sunday Observer
How to use Ayurvedic/Deshiya Chikitsa:

Steaming for respiratory well-being

8 November, 2020

Steaming is one of the oldest disease curing methods used in the Deshiya Chikitsa medical tradition of Sri Lanka and the Ayurveda medical system. It is also part of the curative traditions of several other countries such as India and China. In Sri Lanka’s ancient Deshiya Chikitsa (Sinhala Wedakama) and Indian Ayurveda, steaming has a host of varying simple as well as complex procedures that could cure even prolonged diseases especially those related to the respiratory tract and cleanse the system,.

Today, we focus on several easy to follow steaming methods for diverse ailments and with the use of different herbs.

This is an instructive interview with Ayurveda Doctor, S.M.S. Samarakoon, the Head of the Unit of Deshiya Chikitsa at the Institute of Indigenous Medicine, University of Colombo. In this interview the process of steaming is explained at a theoretical as well as a practical level. It is facilitated to help the reader become familiar with the present day relevance and practical use of steaming as followed in Sri Lankan traditional medicine.

Q: Could you comment on steaming as a part of the Lankan Deshiya Chikitsa/Ayurveda extending back to ancient times and explain its efficacy?

A: Literally, the process of producing ‘steam’ is what we refer to as therapies using ‘steaming”. This is used in day to day life on many occasions. When children suffer from nasal congestion, mothers get them to inhale steam. Girls who have pimples let steam from boiling water infuse their faces to clear up the infection. When we come to indigenous medicine, the use of steam for curing diseases involves a series of treatments used from generation to generation in traditional and Ayurveda medical care.

When we get fever with a common cold, the advice of physicians is to do steaming using fresh leaves of a few medicinal plants such as Nika and Pavatta. Among diverse treatment methods, steaming is one that gives fairly quick results. It is often used alongside other complementary treatments, in addition to the consumption of immunity boosting, and unadulterated traditional Lankan food.

Q: What is the clinical-medical-philosophical premise of steaming as per ancient and modern science based definition/categorisation?

A: Steaming is a major treatment method used in Ayurveda. In a broader sense, the entire Ayurveda treatment is two-fold; Shamana (pacifying or alleviating) and Shodhana (purifying). Steaming is on one hand, a method of Shamana treatment, on the other hand, steaming is a pre-requisite for the Shodhana treatment.

One of the main textbooks of Ayurveda; the Charaka Samhita catergorises the entire therapeutic procedure of Ayurveda in to six types; namely Shad-Upakrama which literary means six types of treatments. Swedana is one of them. Swedana is the procedure to induce ‘sweating’, from the body.

It be induced either using heat or without heat. If your body is wrapped with a thick blanket or when you do exercises you start sweating. When you enter into a hot cubicle full of steam, your body starts sweating.

This physiological phenomenon is used as a therapeutic procedure in Ayurveda for various ailments especially for those produced by imbalanced Vata and Kaphadosha.

Now, you can understand how scientific the ancient wisdom is? Hence, it is very clear that every therapeutic procedure used in Ayurveda as well as in indigenous medicine is scientific. Therefore, steaming has both a philosophical and scientific basis.

Q: What are the common as well as complicated diseases that steaming can alleviate?

A: The physical characteristic of steam is temperature. Without increasing the temperature of the body by any means, you cannot induce sweating. So, steam is hot by nature. The body is made up of three humors called ‘Tri-dosha’ which is the combination of Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Both Vata and Pitta are cold naturally. Therefore, steam can act against both Vata and Kapha. Steam relieves pain, heaviness of the body and stiffness of limbs. Steam mitigates cold by producing sweating.

At the same time, stream liquefies and reduces phlegm and clears obstruction of the body channels such as the nasal passage. Now, you can understand that steaming is an effective treatment for diseases caused by aggravated Vata and Kaphadosha. But, steaming is not generally used for diseases of aggravated Pitta because Pitta too is hot in nature.

Ailments which can be treated by steaming; acute fevers especially caused by aggravated Vata and Kapha (phlegm), coughs, common colds (Pratishya), nasal congestion, bronchial asthma, headache and allergic rhinitis (Peenasa) and similar health problems.

The different types of common headaches such as cluster headache and migraine are relieved by herbal steaming. In addition, infectious diseases can be treated by steaming, aided by specific herbs.

Sinusitis is a disease caused by infections of the sinuses of the skull and sinusitis cause a headache which is relieved by steaming and enhanced by the use of specific herbs.

But, you have to keep in mind steaming is not a complete treatment but, is complementary to the therapeutic procedure of the relevant disease.

Q: The Chinese people are said to have used plain water based steaming to eliminate viruses from the body during the height of the Covid -19 battle earlier this year. What is the difference between the use of plain water and water with herbs for such disease elimination?

A: Steam produced by boiling plain water is also effective for the diseases cited earlier. But, it cannot be cited as a treatment per se from the indigenous medicine point of view. Medicated steaming is more effective than plain water steaming. Drinking plenty of warm water is also an alternative to steaming. This provides relief for the diseases cited above, and also for coughs, common cold, sore throat, hoarseness of voice due to aggravated phlegm.


Q: In the Sri Lankan system the use of a large cloth such as a bed-sheet is recommended by some traditional doctors, to cover the head and the whole body. Why is this recommended? How different is this to ordinary steaming where the main focus is for heat to get to the nostrils and throat?

A: When you suffer from fever, your body temperature increases. If you want to reduce your body heat, you have to increase heat loss from the body.

Now, apply this context to the question you asked. When you do steaming to a patient who is suffering from fever, what you put an earthen pot full of steam in front of the patient, and then the patient is covered by a thick blanket or a bed-sheet. Now, the lid of the pot is removed in order to cover the entire body with steam. The patient is asked to inhale deep through both mouth and nose. You see how the ancient physician regulated the temperature?

Steam has a high temperature (100 Co) which is harmful to the mucous membranes of the mouth and nose, and also to the skin. When steaming after having covered the body with a bed sheet or a large thick cloth, the body is surrounded with steam. Thereby, the steam is absorbed by the body while the space inside the bed sheet is also full of steam. Now, the temperature reduces to the bearable level (60-70 Co). It also dilates blood vessels on the skin so that it accelerates heat loss. Then, the fever subsides. The steam liquefies the phlegm obstructed in the nasal passage which enables the patient to breathe easily. In addition, the medicinal properties provided by the medicinal plants/ materials enhance the therapeutic efficacy of the steaming. Now, can anyone say that the ancient wisdom based on Ayurveda and indigenous medicine is unscientific?

Q: Could you name and explain about the appropriate herbs which can be used in steaming for diverse health related circumstances?

A: Commonly, coriander, garlic, holy basil (Madurutala), ginger, fennel seed, Tree turmeric (Venivelgeta), Fresh leaves of lemon, Nika, Pavatta and Galangal (rhizome of Heenaratta) are used for steaming in general with different combinations for many ailments.

Steaming can be done in many ways. The steaming options given here are for when one has fever caused by respiratory issues. In this case, steaming has to be used for the whole body with any of the recipes given here. (1). Steaming with dried ginger, coriander and water boiled with garlic.

This is useful for common cold, nasal congestion and sore throats and similar ailments. You can drink half a cup of this water warm for the ailments cited above. (2). Steaming the whole body with water boiled with sour orange and lemon fresh leaves. (3). Steaming by adding fresh leaves of Nika and Pavatta and garlic. These recipes for steaming are also effective in headache caused by sinusitis and migraine.

All earlier mentioned diseases are Vata and phlegm dominant diseases. Therefore, cold water, drink and food are contra-indicated. Drinking warm water help liquefy phlegm and ease breathing. It reduces fever.

In similar ways, warm mouth gargles, mouth washes, decoctions, and hot infusions are supportive remedies for many diseases.

When you have excessive aggravated phlegm associated with fever, cough, cold, nasal congestion and headaches you can gargle with water boiled with mustard seeds, dry ginger, black pepper and long pepper. This is also curative for infective conditions of the mouth and throat. You can also gargle with water boiled with dry ginger, black pepper and long pepper and with the addition of lemon juice and rock salt.

Ayurveda drugs act on the body based on their pharmacodynamic properties such as Rasa (taste of the drug), Guna (properties based on Panchabhauthinature), Virya (potency) of the drug.

Q: With regard to Covid-19 there is no cure. However, earlier global research publicised around March has shown that heat can eliminate the virus from the body. In this respect, could you give some specific advice as per our indigenous medicine, as to how in the stages of the Covid-19 virus which are known so far when the virus enters the body, how heat could be used to eliminate it?

A: Covid-19 is the newest form of virus of the group of viruses called ‘Corona virus’. As I mentioned earlier, NO remedy or vaccine has been so far invented for this deadly disease as it is new to the world. This disease is extremely contagious as the transmissibility of the virus is extremely rapid. To date, there is no proven effective treatment for Covid -19. Experts in different countries try anti-malarial drugs, immune-modulatory drugs, antiviral drugs, and the drugs used for autoimmune diseases. Considering the nature of the virus, it is said that the virus is destroyed in temperatures above 79 Celsius (175 Fo). This virus causes fever, dry cough, chest discomfort and fatigue. In severe cases it causes bilateral lung infiltration and viral pneumonia. Finally, in severe cases, patients die of respiratory failure. The incubation period of the virus vary from 5-14 days.

In this context, steaming is effective to weaken the virus. Most of the medicinal plants used for steaming are proven to have antimicrobial properties. According to Ayurveda concepts, this disease may be correlated with an acute diseases associated with Vata and Kapha dominancy.

Ayurveda and indigenous medicine have a large number of potentially effective medicinal recipes which are time tested.

I urge the health authorities to integrate these treatments for Corona patients with the participation of Ayurveda and indigenous physicians.

Devadara paspanguwa is a commonly used decoction which can be prepared in any Ayurveda pharmacy for the initial stage of this disease. In this decoction, Devadara may be replaced by roots of Pavatta when phlegm is more prominent. One can use half-a- cup of this decoction (warm) twice a day for five or six days along while steaming with this same decoction.

We can also use hot infusions of coriander, dry ginger, long pepper and roots of galangal in 4:2:1:1 ratio for the steaming. Also infusions of coriander, dry ginger and long pepper in equal amounts with the addition of a little rock salt are fine as well. I have explained the ways of steaming in which temperature is well controlled/ regulated and is not harmful to the body.

When you drink these hot infusions and decoctions, the fever will subside while phlegm will be liquefied. Your nasal passage will be cleared. Viruses will be weakened or destroyed. Remember that these are time tested treatments for thousands of years so we do not need to have fresh research findings.

Without waiting for vaccines to be invented and imported from other countries we can use these precious cures we have right here with us as part of our heritage. I urge the health authorities to consider the time tested scientific value of the medical heritage of our Motherland at a time it is most needed.


Do not do steaming at very high temperatures. Do not do steaming if you do not have any disease/symptoms as explained in the above contexts.

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