Is It Possible For Heat Therapy To Treat Depression One Day?

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A recent study suggests a potential link between depression and slightly elevated body temperature, prompting intriguing questions about whether temperature regulation could have mental health implications.

Researchers analyzed data from over 20,000 individuals who monitored their temperatures and reported depression symptoms daily over seven months. The findings, published in Scientific Reports, revealed a correlation between increased depression severity and higher body temperatures.

Lead study author, Ashley Mason, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco, said, “These data are exciting because they point to the potential of a unique body-based treatment for depression that doesn’t involve medications or traditional psychotherapy.”

“We might be able to intervene directly on body temperature to address depression symptoms,” she adds.


Can Depression Influence Body Temperature, or Is It the Other Way Around?

 Even a minor rise in body temperatures – 0.1 degrees Celsius (approximately 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit) – was associated with a significantly elevated risk of experiencing depressive symptoms.

However, the study leaves numerous questions unanswered.

The exact relationship between depression and body temperature remains ambiguous. It’s uncertain whether depression disrupts the body’s cooling mechanisms, resulting in higher temperatures, or if elevated body temperature contributes to depressive symptoms. Moreover, the study did not investigate whether interventions targeting body temperature could directly impact depression frequently or severity.

Coauthor of the study and professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Christopher  Lowry, PhD, suggests a potential connection between body temperature and mood regulation through sensory pathways in the brain.


Mood and Heat Regulation

Dr. Lowry says, “The same pathways that convey warm temperature sensory information to thermoregulatory systems also convey that information to brain regions that are involved in control of mood and cognitive function.”

Dr. Lory adds that when these pathways in the brain malfunction, people may be more prone to depression and also more apt to have higher body temperatures.

According to Dr. Lowry, scientists are currently investigating whether heat exposure, through methods like sauna therapy or hot baths, could activate the body’s natural cooling mechanisms and potentially repair dysfunctional brain pathways implicated in mood regulation. However, he notes that these experiments are still in their early stages and cannot conclusively demonstrate the efficacy of heat therapy in treating depression.

Dr. Teodor Postolache, a psychiatry professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, cautions against prematurely focusing on regulating body temperatures as a means to enhance mood. He stresses that it’s premature for individuals to assume they have depression solely based on slight fluctuations in body temperature.

“It is premature to do so,” Dr. Postolache says. This can be attributed, at least in part, to the diverse array of factors – such as seasonal variations, sleep patterns, physical activity levels, heat exposure, dietary habits, and genetic predispositions – that collectively influence body temperature.

“Temperature is too dependent on environment,” Dr. Postolache says.