Could Heat Therapy One Day Treat Depression?

Depressive symptoms may be linked to a slight increase in body temperature. A new study raises the question of whether lowering a person’s temperature could have mental health benefits.

Scientists analyzed data from over 20,000 people who wore devices that measured their temperature and provided daily reports about their temperatures. Depression symptoms over seven months, the study was conducted. According to study findings published, researchers found that people who reported more severe symptoms of depression also had higher temperatures. Scientific Reports.[1]

These data are exciting because they indicate the potential of a unique body-based depression treatment that does not involve medication or conventional psychotherapy, says the lead study author, Ashley Mason, Ph.D. She is an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco. We might be able directly to affect body temperature in order to treat depression symptoms.

Does depression affect body temperature — or vice versa?

The slightest increase in body heat — about 0.1 degrees C — can cause depression symptoms to be more severe.

The study leaves a number of questions unanswered.

It’s not clear whether depression could interfere with a person’s body’s ability to keep cool, leading to higher readings on thermometers. Or if a higher temperature in the body might contribute to depression. The study did not examine whether interventions that aim to lower body temperature could directly affect the severity or frequency of depressive symptoms.

According to coauthor Christopher Lowry, Ph.D. of the University of Colorado Boulder and integrative physiology professor, there may be a link between body temperature and mood because sensory pathways play a part in regulating these two things.

Heat and Mood Regulation

Lowry explains that the same pathways that transmit sensory information about warm temperatures to the thermoregulatory system also send that information to brain areas that control mood and cognitive functions. Lowry says that when these brain pathways malfunction, people are more likely to be depressed and to have higher temperatures.

Lowry says that scientists are studying whether heat exposure, such as sauna therapy and hot tubs, can stimulate the body’s cooling system and repair damaged pathways in the mind, which play a part in mood regulation. These experiments are too early to determine whether heat therapy is effective in treating depression.

  Read more about Cold Weather Exercises: What to wear and when you’re better off staying inside.

Teodor POSTOLACH, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, who was not involved in the study, believes it’s still too early for people to try to regulate their body temperature to improve their mood. People shouldn’t assume that depression is present just because their body temperature seems higher than normal.

Postolache: “It’s premature.” There is a wide range of factors that influence body temperature, including the time of year and sleep patterns, heat exposure, eating behaviors, genetics, and exercise habits. “Temperature depends too much on the environment,” says Dr. Postolache.


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