Mental Health Awareness Week – Special Focus on Depression (Heat)

Hot off the press is some brand new research in to the role of heat on alleviating the symptoms of depression. Turkish baths, saunas and sweat lodges have been a feature of cultures all over the world for hundreds of years. Full body heat has been used for therapeutic and sacred purposes by indigenous peoples across North America, Scandinavia, Central and South America, Central Europe where they are known to create a sense of relaxation. More recently research into the hormetic effects of heat on the body have uncovered many more health benefits. Hormesis is the term used to describe the beneficial effects of stress on the body. The most commonly understood example of this is exercise; the process of applying manageable stress to the body, by lifting weights for example, compels the body to respond by becoming stronger. Similarly, heat stress can activate biological pathways linked to improved health, longevity and neurogenesis (the formation of new brain cells).

In this paper the authors sought to clarify an earlier observation that a single session of infrared heat exposure reduced depression for five days post-treatment. Conducted over two years the participants in this current study all had a very high depression scores on a standard symptoms scale but were not taking any antidepressant medication. Participants were randomly allocated to one of two conditions: either one session of full body infrared heat treatment or one session of a placebo treatment; an identical set up just without sufficient heat to significantly raise core body temperature. The sham condition was so convincing that the majority of the people who received it believed they were receiving the real treatment. At the end of the intervention participants were reassessed at 1, 2 and 3 days, and 1, 2, 4 and 6 weeks after by assessors who did not know whether the participant had had the real or the sham treatment. Remarkably the participants who had received just one session of heat treatment showed significantly reduced depression scores up to six weeks after treatment and experienced only mild and short-lived side effects (such as dry mouth, headache or sweating). Though small, this study builds on previous research that showed a significant reduction in depression following heat treatment as well, of course, as the established therapeutic use of heat in many cultures.

Whole body heat treatment has the potential to be a powerful, safe, fast-acting and long-lasting treatment for depression. It means that a visit to the gym (see yesterday’s post) followed by a few minutes in the sauna could have tremendous positive effects on mood and depressive symptoms.


Janssen CW, Lowry CA, Mehl MR, et al. Whole-Body Hyperthermia for the Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online May 12, 2016. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.1031.

Hanusch, K. U., Janssen, C. H., Billheimer, D., Jenkins, I., Spurgeon, E., Lowry, C. A.  & Raison, C. L. (2013). Whole-body hyperthermia for the treatment of major depression: associations with thermoregulatory cooling. American Journal of Psychiatry, 170, 802-804.

Koltyn, K. F., Robins, H. I., Schmitt, C. L., Cohen, J. D. & Morgan, W. P. Changes in mood state following whole-body hyperthermia. International journal of hyperthermia : the official journal of European Society for Hyperthermic Oncology, North American Hyperthermia Group 8, 305-307 (1992).


This information is provided for information purposes only and should not be taken as advice or instruction. This information does not replace the advice of your doctor. Please consult an appropriate health professional if you believe you are experiencing a mental or physical health concern.