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Sauna Therapy For Depression

New Research In The Field of Treatment For Major Depression Reveals That Getting Hot and Sweaty Can Actually Change Neurological Function For the Better!

****** Please be sure to consult your primary care physician before ‘self-diagnosing’, or ‘self-medicating’. This article serves only to relay the newest research in the field of sauna bathing and the treatment of mood disorders, and is by no means diagnostic, nor prescriptive. ******

Stepping out of a sauna session feels amazing for most people, which is why heat therapies can be found in spas the world over, and why humans have used various forms of sauna bathing cross-culturally, and throughout immeasurable distances of time.

There are more elaborate reasons for mood enhancement than just feeling refreshed and relaxed after a sauna session. Recent medical research into the field of depression reveals that regular infrared sauna bathing, when performed in more specific ways, may demonstrate remarkable results for individuals living with major depression.

The iconic Dr. Rhonda Patrick dives deeply into the realm of how sauna bathing can dramatically improve symptoms of Major Depression for the better.  With her new research partner, Dr. Ashley Mason, revealed unprecedented results on mood with the use of heat therapy. The two professionals have explored, researched, and written extensively on the impact of what full body hyperthermia has on mood elevation and stabilization.

In order to create an impactful effect on mood, it is important to sauna with the specific intention of elevating internal temperatures to about 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit. This requires a specific type of heat and methodology of engaging heat therapy. 

These questions remain:

  • What type of heat is best used to improve and stabilize mood?
  • What are the biomarkers that were found during the studies?
  • How does heat affect neuroprotective factors?
  • How can you use full body hyperthermia to improve and stabilize mood from home?

This article seeks to help you understand the data behind the importance of heat therapy as a plausible treatment for Major Depressive Disorder, distinguish the difference between full body hyperthermia versus a regular sauna session, and more importantly the specific ways for you to sauna at home to improve and stabilize your mood safely, and effectively. 

****** Please be sure to consult your primary care physician before ‘self-diagnosing’, or ‘self-medicating’. This article serves only to relay the newest research in the field of sauna bathing and mood, and is by no means diagnostic, nor prescriptive. ******

Major Depressive Disorder Represents A Serious Risk Factor For Many Americans. This Serious Condition When Studied Within Clinical Trials May Respond Positively To Whole Body Hyperthermia

“Whole-body hyperthermia holds promise as a safe, rapid-acting, antidepressant modality with a prolonged therapeutic benefit.” (1)

The multitude of side-effects, and ineffective nature of many pharmacological treatments for depression has begged the medical community to rise up and seek out other options for individuals living with Major Depression. While some individuals may thrive on traditional SSRI’s, such as Zoloft, many individuals have found this drug inaccessible, or deeply destructive. It is for this reason that finding out about a variety of alternatives that are backed by high level scientific research is of paramount importance given the rate of major depressive disorder in America. (1)

Prolonged periods of depression, when left untreated, increases the risk of mortality from a variety of stress related diseases. Therefore its prognosis is not particularly positive and must be treated with the same serious nature as a stroke, heart attack, or any other disease that carries a high rate of mortality. 

A randomized clinical trial on the effects of whole body hyperthermia (WBH), demonstrated that those individuals living with major depression on average have a high resting internal body temperature (also correlated with abnormally high levels of stress). Over a course of a six week trial period, along with other neurological regulatory functions that were normalized, internal body temperature was normalized. 

The extent to which resting body temperature as it correlates to major depression is still unknown; however what is known is that as body temperature is regulated through WBH, mood is also elevated and regulated. 

Chronic stress is associated with sustained elevated body temperature. Exposure to regular heat therapy helps the body to regulate internal temperatures, and reduce inflammation from long term stress. (1) It may not always be possible to minimize stress levels from circumstances such as job loss or loss of a loved one; however, it is possible to minimize the damage done to the body from stressful events through regular sauna bathing.

The study that was performed in 2016, used infrared lights, but kept the head of the participants cool, with cold clothes, ice packs, and plenty of water. Here are the findings of this particular study: 

Results  The mean (SD) age was 36.7 (15.2) years in the WBH group and 41.47 (12.54) years in the sham group. Immediately following the intervention, 10 participants (71.4%) randomized to sham treatment believed they had received WBH compared with 15 (93.8%) randomized to WBH. When compared with the sham group, the active WBH group showed significantly reduced Hamilton Depression Rating Scale scores across the 6-week postintervention study period (WBH vs sham; week 1: −6.53, 95% CI, −9.90 to −3.16, P < .001; week 2: −6.35, 95% CI, −9.95 to −2.74, P = .001; week 4: −4.50, 95% CI, −8.17 to −0.84, P = .02; and week 6: −4.27, 95% CI, −7.94 to −0.61, P = .02). These outcomes remained significant after evaluating potential moderating effects of between group differences in baseline expectancy scores. Adverse events in both groups were generally mild.” (1)

So, what else is happening inside the brain, and body to create such remarkable results from heat therapy on individuals suffering from major depression, and how can you create a similar situation with your at home sauna?

Whole Body Hyperthermia Increases Neuroprotective Factors & Irisin. Is Heat Therapy A Viable Non-Pharmacological Treatment For Major Depression?

Irisin is a myokin that is most associated with its release during exercise and cold immersion. However, more current research has found that it is also released during heat therapy treatments that bring the internal body temperature up to 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Moreover, the release of irisin is also associated with elevated mood as seen after vigorous exercise. 

The correlative benefits of cardiovascular exercise on depression have been known for several years.  It is often very difficult for those suffering from major depression to exercise. The possibility of sauna bathing (under the right circumstances), particularly in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy to improve symptoms of major depression are promising. 

Exposure to whole body hyperthermia and the ensuing release of irisin also improves Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factors (BDNF), this helps to improve memory, cognitive function, and mood. A decrease in BDNF is associated with dementia, a variety of psychiatric conditions, as well as mood disorders. There is significant research to suggest that BDNF is ameliorated through both the improved release of Heat Shock Proteins and irisin during heat therapy sessions. This means that in conjunction with or in lieu of pharmacological treatments, the right type of heat therapy may improve mood disorders, including major depression. (3)

Dr. Rhonda Patrick writes: “The hormetic effects of heat stress are facilitated by molecular mechanisms that mitigate protein damage and aggregation and activate endogenous antioxidant, repair, and degradation processes. Many of these responses are also triggered in response to moderate-to vigorous-intensity exercise and include increased expression of heat shock proteins, transcriptional regulators, and pro- and anti-inflammatory factors.” (3)

This means that even if an individual living with major depression is unable to get up to perform vigorous exercise, they can still benefit from the plethora of biological factors induced from sauna bathing that mimic vigorous exercise. Just by sitting in a  sauna, at a lower temperature for longer periods of time (40 minutes plus), individuals may experience clinically significant improvements in the expression of depressive symptoms without exercise. (3)

Now that you understand the mechanism behind improvement in major depression with the use of heat therapy, here are some ways to get started from home with your own infrared sauna.

What Kind Of Heat To Use When Treating Major Depression, How Long You Need To Stay In The Heat, And How To Keep Elevated Internal Temperatures Over a Prolonged Period Of Time: Helpful Tips

  • Use Infrared Heat
  • Low Temperature
  • Longer Periods Of Time (at least 40 minutes)
  • Keep Your Head Cool With Cold Compresses and Your Internal Body Temperature High

While there are many benefits to both the brain and body from high temperature sauna bathing, the reality is that atmospheric heat, such as found in this type of sauna will not allow individuals to stay in the sauna long enough to effect the necessary neurological changes needed for improvement in major depression. (1)

Traditional Finnish saunas typically run at about 170- 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and individuals tend to stay in the sauna for about twenty minutes. While there are absolutely incredible non-negotiable benefits of using traditional sauna, when it comes to treating major depression, clinicians found that longer periods of sustained heat exposure were necessary to induce positive changes in depressed patients. This means that infrared, meaning radiant heat was necessary to execute proper positive changes in patients with major depression. 

Infrared heat, unlike the convection heat of a traditional sauna, is radiant, meaning it is light. Infrared light saunas do not generally go higher than 160 degrees Fahrenheit, however are better at increasing internal body temperature than the high heat of a traditional sauna. 

Furthermore, the effects of whole body hyperthermia were better met when individuals started at low temperatures, while still under the influence of infrared light, and slowly increased the temperature to about 120 degrees, for at least 40 minutes, ideally for an hour. 

So, how can you comfortably stay in a sauna for an hour, without feeling faint, or light headed? Ice packs to the head, cold clothes, and lots of cold water for drinking. Since the intention of  using infrared light to treat major depression is different from other objectives that an individual may have, such as detoxification, it is important to stay in the infrared sauna for a long period of time, and keep the head cool, but the internal body temperature high.

Since the studies required that participants reach an internal temperature of 101.3 degrees for at least 40 minutes, this means that the most effective heat source was infrared light to produce the necessary neurological, and biological changes to improve and stabilize mood. (1)

When treating any condition with sauna therapy it is always best to consult a medical practitioner, this article is intended only as additional education. Major Depression carries with it a high risk or mortality, therefore must be treated seriously under all circumstances. Before ceasing to take medication consult with a primary care physician. Whole body hyperthermia ought to be used in conjunction with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and with the assistance of a medical professional. 

****If suicidal ideas are present, get professional help immediately, or call a suicide hotline. ****

Sources Cited:


(JAMA Psychiatry. 2016;73(8):789-795. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.1031

  2. Rhonda, Patrick, P,. Teresa L. Johnson. “Sauna Use As A Lifestyle Practice To Extend Healthspan”, Experimental Gerontology, 2021, 111509

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