Can a Little Heat Make You Happier?

Thermometer

New research on the potential benefits of hyperthermia treating depression.

Heat may improve a person’s depression symptoms, new research from the University of Wisconsin suggests.

To conduct the study, researchers exposed a small group of 16 volunteers with major depressive disorders — but not taking psychotropic medications — to whole-body hyperthermia, raising their core body temperature to 101.3 degrees F.

A separate group under-went a “sham” procedure that exposed them to less heat.

The study team then did follow-up mental-health assessments one, two, and three days — and one, two, four, and six weeks — later.

Compared with the sham intervention group, those treated with hyperthermia had significantly improved depression scores after six weeks. The study’s results were published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

“We think that using heat to stimulate the skin activates serotonin-producing cells in the midbrain, which then produce a change in how the brain functions,” says lead study author Charles L. Raison, MD, a professor in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “In a way, one might think of this pathway from the skin to the brain as a deep-brain stimulator crafted by evolution. We tap into this pathway because heat makes the brain feel happy.”

The findings show promise for hyperthermia as a safe, nondrug therapy for depression, but due to the small study size, Raison cautions that more research is necessary to determine how to best deliver the treatment to patients.

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Heidi Wachter is an Experience Life staff writer.

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