Saunas and Depression
Saunas - we’ve heard of them more and more and see pictures of them tucked away in the Canadian forests. They are known to help with athletic recovery and have cardiovascular benefits similar to a moderate walk. Not only are they pleasing just to look at but there may be potential for saunas to help with depression. As a psychiatrist, that is where I start getting curious and start digging into the scientific literature!
So what do we know?
We’re starting to recognize a relationship between depression and inflammation. Inflammatory processes are found to promote depression in many people (though not everyone). Inflammation can even produce depressive symptoms in non-depressed people. Inflammation can also happen with a sprained ankle or an infection - it is an immune response. Studies on what the scientific community calls “whole body hyperthermia” - heating the body up to 101.3 degrees fahrenheit in an expensive machine that in effect, does the same thing as saunas, have found that the hyperthermia machine activates the inflammatory cascade the same way that exercise does. The more that this inflammatory cascade got activated, the better people felt. It feels counterintuitive but acutely, exercise and whole body hyperthermia raises inflammation but in the long run, they both lower inflammation in the body.
What don’t we know?
We don’t yet know how long someone would need to stay at above that core temperature (101.3 degrees) in a sauna to get the anti-depressant effects. Infrared saunas might take a longer time to get to that core body temperature - up to an hour. It’s important to remember that heat acclimation can take time! Work your way up to longer periods of sauna sitting. Does this transfer to hot yoga having antidepressant effects? We can’t say for certain.
Saunas, steam rooms, and hammams have been around in different cultures for many years. These are ancient traditions that are at the beginning stages of being studied for mental health treatments.