A woman sits in a sauna wrapped up in a bathrobeShare on Pinterest
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 ice baths or saunas — might provide a mental health benefit.

Researchers estimate that 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.”

For this study, Dr. Mason and her team analyzed data from more than 20,000 study participants from 106 countries. The participants all wore a device measuring their body temperature and self-reported their body temperatures and depression symptoms each day for seven months.

At the conclusion of the study, researchers found study participants had higher body temperatures with each increasing level of depression symptom severity.

“Our finding that increasing levels of depression was associated with increasing body temperature is novel,” Dr. Mason said.

“Prior studies have shown a link between depression (yes/no) and increased body temperature, but our study is the largest study of its kind that we know of that shows what’s called a dose-response association — the greater the depression, the greater the body temperature. We found what the prior data suggested we would find.”
‚— Dr. Ashley Mason

“There are many unanswered questions about the link between body temperature and depression,” said Dr. Mason.

“Inflammation may be a factor, and we are looking at this in our ongoing work. Thermosensory pathways may also play a role — these pathways relay sensory information from our periphery (think, our skin) to our central nervous system. We can think of them as ‘gateways’ to neural systems that impact our mood and cognitive function,” she added.

The research team believes these findings highlight the potential for new depression treatments focused on lowering body temperature.

In the study, they state these findings may support the use of interventions that temporarily raise body temperature, such as hot yoga, hyperthermic baths, and infrared saunas.

A study published in August 2016 also found that whole-body hyperthermia — a treatment used to slightly raise a person’s body temperature — may also be a potential therapy for depression.

“Ironically, heating people up actually can lead to rebound body temperature lowering that lasts longer than simply cooling people down directly, as through an ice bath,” she explains.

“We are actively studying heat treatments, in particular sauna treatments, as a body-based intervention for depression symptoms here at UCSF in the heart of San Francisco. We have an ongoing trial right now for individuals with clinical depression where we are pairing sauna treatments with cognitive behavioral therapy for depression,” she says.

Research has also looked at the opposite by using cold therapies such as cryotherapy and ice baths as a potential depression treatment.

A study published in June 2020 reported that whole-body cryotherapy helps reduce mental health deterioration in mood disorders, such as depression.

Research published in December 2021 found a single immersion in cold water can help improve a person’s mood.

MNT also spoke with Dr. Gary Small, Chair of Psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, about this study.

Dr. Small said he was not surprised that body temperature correlates with symptoms of depression.

“Previous research has shown that hot baths help mitigate mood symptoms, and this study suggests that our body’s ability to cool down from such warmed states may yield the antidepressant effect,” he continued.

“The observed relationship does not prove a causal link — it is possible that when people get depressed, their ability to physically remain cool is impaired. However, a more plausible explanation from this research is that the body’s ability to cool off through perspiring improves mood.”
— Dr. Gary Small

“Future controlled prospective studies comparing different methods for cooling off would help mental health professionals develop more efficacious body-temperature strategies for mitigating mood,” Dr. Small added.