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Depression is a mood disorder characterized by profound sadness, cardiovascular dysfunction, altered sleep patterns, and feelings of guilt or low self-worth. Depression is often accompanied by perturbations in metabolic, hormonal, and immune function. Roughly a third of people who have depression fail to respond to antidepressant drugs. Findings from a clinical trial suggest that hyperthermic baths may reduce some of the symptoms associated with depression.
Hyperthermia, a state of elevated core body temperature, stresses the body, activating molecular mechanisms that mitigate protein damage and aggregation and activate endogenous antioxidant, repair, and degradation processes. Whole-body hyperthermia is a therapeutic strategy used to treat various medical conditions, including cancer, fibromyalgia, and others. Hyperthermic baths – immersion in very hot water (40°C, 104°F) – offer a means to achieve hyperthermia.
The randomized two-arm placebo-controlled, eight-week pilot trial involved 36 adults who had moderate depression. Half of the group was randomized to take hyperthermic baths, while the control group received a sham, low-lux green light exposure. Participants received the treatments twice weekly for four weeks.
The hyperthermic baths involved immersion in 40°C water with the participant’s head out. Participants stayed in the water to the point of discomfort, with a target duration of 30 minutes. These 20 to 30-minute hot water baths typically increased the participants' core body temperature by approximately 1.7°C (3°F). Upon exiting the bath, the participants were wrapped in warm blankets and hot water bottles and kept warm for another 30 minutes.
At the end of the trial, the participants who received the hyperthermic bath treatment demonstrated clinically significant improvements in measures of depressive symptoms that lasted up to four weeks after the baths were discontinued. They also exhibited improvements in sleep quality. No changes in heart rate variability were noted, however. These findings suggest that hyperthermic baths may be beneficial in treating the symptoms of depression.