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If you want to fight depression, go to the sauna

According to a new study led by Ashley Mason, a clinical psychologist at the Osher Center for Integrative Health at UC San Francisco, regular sauna sessions could benefit people suffering from depression.

Mason and his team conducted a clinical trial on 12 adults with major depressive disorder for eight weeks. They treated them with a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and sessions in a sauna heated to about 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 140 minutes. By the end of the trial, 11 of the 12 participants no longer met criteria for major depressive disorder.

One of the key ideas from the study concerns body temperature. Research shows that people with depression often have higher than average body temperatures. When a person’s symptoms improve, their body temperature also normalizes.

This raises the following hypothesis: If you increase body temperature, can you make the body’s cooling systems work faster and alleviate the symptoms of depression?

This idea has been circulating among researchers for a long time.

A paper published in 2016 revealed that people with major depressive disorder who underwent “infrared hyperthermia” – increasing their body temperature in an infrared chamber – saw an improvement in their depression symptoms.

Mason told Wired that she was “spellbinded” by the findings. As part of her work, she and her team analyzed the daily temperature readings and depression symptoms of more than 20,000 people to confirm the link between the two. All participants in Mason’s study also saw their body temperature rise 1.5 degrees above the average human temperature during their sauna sessions.

Mason said there is still more research to be done before he can confirm that sauna therapy can combat depression. But “a treatment of the mind and body with this kind of result surely deserves further study,” she told Wired.

She ultimately wants to gather enough clinical evidence for insurance companies to cover saunas “so that when someone with depression is considering a menu of treatment options, this one is on the menu.”

Some therapists already recommend sauna therapy to their clients. “My clients have reported positive mood-enhancing benefits, including some alleviation of their depression symptoms during and after using saunas.” Annie Wright, registered psychotherapist who has been practicing for more than 14 years in the Bay Area, told Business Insider.

If possible, she recommends that her clients combine sauna therapy with cold plunges, which can also increase the production of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters like norepinephrine. “I love participating in both experiences because of the profound mental health benefits I experience.”


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