A research team led by Charles Raison, M.D., a scientist affiliated with both the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Arizona, Tuscon, sought to determine whether or not applying heat to the human body could resolve symptoms associated with depression.
Although the concept might sound like science fiction, the results of this study suggest that the occasional sauna might not be a bad idea when it comes to treating depression.
This study was published in the scientific journal JAMA Psychiatry.
Raison, the lead author of the study, has long suspected that depression is linked – at least in part – to temperature regulation. In 2003, researchers found that individuals with depression had higher-than-average body temperatures.
“Serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine – all these chemicals that we think of as depression chemicals are also thermoregulatory chemicals,” explained Raison in a press release.
“Maybe some people are depressed not just totally because of their brain – maybe it’s in their skin; their skin is sending some wrong signal to the brain.”
To test whether temperature can influence the symptoms associated with depression, Raison and colleagues recruited 34 participants with the disorder. Half of the patients received a single session of whole-body hyperthermia (WBH), whereas the other half received a so-called “sham” treatment.
During a WBH session, participants were placed in a tent-like enclosure in which their entire body (save for their head) was heated via infrared lights, heating coils and circulating fans. Individuals who received the sham treatment were also placed in a tent-like enclosure, but experienced minimal heat. After the treatment, both sets of patients were monitored weekly over the course of six weeks.
High levels of heat, Raison reasoned, might effectively “reset” the nerve pathways that have been implicated in depression.
“It might be possible to use heat to appropriate these nerve pathways; in essence, to try to use these pathways as ‘deep brain stimulators’ to produce an antidepressant effect,” he hypothesized.
The heat therapy appeared to work just as Raison believed it would. At each time point, individuals who received WBH demonstrated significantly lower depression symptoms than the patients who received the sham therapy. These patients also experienced minimal side effects, all of which could be explained by heat exposure (e.g., headache, tiredness and dry mouth).
“There’s nothing really magical about this – all you need is the right intensity and duration of heat to do the trick,” Raison told Psychiatric News. “But it should be stressed that these aren’t effects that can be achieved by moving to a warm climate. As I can personally attest, these boxes get hot, hot, hot.”
What does this mean?
Heat therapy hasn’t been approved to treat depression in the United States just yet – in fact, it hasn’t been approved to treat any medical conditions at all. Nevertheless, the results of this small study suggest that thermotherapy might be a valid way in which doctors can treat depression in the future. More studies will be necessary to perfect the procedure as well as to determine if the symptom improvements last longer than a few weeks.
“The participants undergoing hyperthermia did around 40 percent better in terms of symptoms, and some people even went into remission, but as a whole, this one session did not lead to improvement in everybody,” cautioned Raison. “And if you looked at the week-by-week scores, it suggests that hyperthermia had some active effects on depression in the first two weeks, but then the improvement was that the patients simply hadn’t relapsed yet. And how long will that last? And will it work better if we give patients two or three sessions instead of one?”
Raison and his colleagues are hoping that the success of this study will inspire future clinical trials to look at the efficacy of heat therapy. In the meantime, stick to depression treatments that have been explicitly approved by the FDA and – if you feel like it – give the sauna a try, too.
Sovereign Health of Chandler’s behavioral health treatment program provides women with treatment for mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other behavioral health disorders. For more information, contact our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for Sovereign Health, where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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