Depression and body temperature: Are saunas or cold therapy better?

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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When it comes to treating depression, saunas may be better than ice baths, a new study suggests. Dimensions/Getty Images
  • Besides psychotherapy, people may be prescribed antidepressant drugs — which can sometimes have side effects that impact a person’s quality of life — as treatment for various mental Health conditions.
  • Alternative therapies such as cold exposure or heat therapy may help alleviate depression symptoms instead of or in conjunction with antidepressant medications.
  • Researchers from the University of California – San Francisco recently found that people with depression have higher body temperatures.
  • Scientists believe this finding suggests novel therapies used to lower body temperature — such as cold exposure therapy or saunas — might provide a mental Health benefit.

Researchers estimate that Health Organization" rationale="Highly respected international organization">5% of the global adult population lives with depression — a mental Health condition negatively affecting a person’s mood.

Depression rates increased during and after the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to rise due to issues such as inequality, employment loss, and inefficient social support.

As treatment for depression many times includes medication, antidepressant drug use has also increased.

While antidepressant medication is generally safe to use, it can have side effects such as stomach issues, headache, problems sleeping, sexual dysfunction, weight gain, and anxiety feelings, which can sometimes make a person’s quality of life worse.

For this reason, people with depression may look for alternate therapies such as herbs and supplements, meditation, acupuncture, dietary changes, yoga, and psychotherapy.

Now, researchers from the University of California – San Francisco have found that people with depression have higher body temperatures than those who do not, suggesting novel therapies used to lower body temperature — such as heat therapy through a hot tub or sauna — might provide a mental health benefit.

The study was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

According to Dr. Ashley Mason, associate professor of psychiatry at the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences and the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Health at the University of California – San Francisco, and lead author of this study, depression is a major detriment to quality of life and the treatments currently available are not meeting the clinical needs of the population.

This led to Dr. Mason and her team examining a potential link between depression and a higher body temperature.

“The link is particularly fascinating because there (is) data showing that when people recover from their depression — regardless of how they got better — their temperature tends to regularize,” she explained to Medical News Today. “Then we have newer data suggesting that temperature-based interventions may reduce depression symptoms. For example, data have shown that using heat-based treatments, in particular infrared sauna, causes acute increases in body temperature.”

Dr. Mason said that these increases in body temperature engage the body’s self-cooling mechanisms — such as sweating — and can lead to subsequent decreases in body temperature — a person sweats, they cool themselves down.

“And one study showed that decreases in a person’s body temperature in the days after a single heat treatment correlated with decreases in their depression symptoms over that same time period,” Dr. Mason continued. “So what’s exciting here is that the link might operate in multiple ways — what’s new is that we might be able to intervene directly on body temperature to address depression symptoms.”

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