Depressed People Are Hotter. Scientists Want to Try Cooling Them Down

Our body temperature may be inextricably linked to our mental health, research published this week suggests. A team of scientists has discovered that higher body temperature is associated with clinical depression. Although there are many unresolved questions about this link, researchers have already begun conducting human trials to confirm and better understand the phenomenon.

The research was conducted by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco. Some previous studies have indicated a possible link between body temperature and depression, but they have generally only looked at small numbers of people. It turns out that these study authors had a much larger data set that could help them study the topic: the TemPredict study.

The TemPredict project originally aimed to determine whether wearable sensors that detect changes in skin temperature and other physiological factors could be used to predict covid-19 infection earlier than usual (in short: probably!). But the study design also meant that you could simultaneously look at temperature readings and the general health of a large group of people, including their self-reported depression symptoms.

For this new research, published In Scientific Reports on Monday, the team examined data from more than 20,000 participants enrolled in the TemPredict study. They found a notable association between depression symptoms and overall higher body temperature, both in terms of self-reported temperature readings and data from wearable devices. And the higher the temperature, the more severe a person's depression tends to be, further strengthening the case for a clear link.

“While there have been decades-old studies documenting a correlation between depression and body temperature, these studies were small, often involving 10 to 20 people,” said the study's lead author, Ashley. Mason, associate professor of psychiatry at the Weill Institute for Neuroscience at UCSF. told Gizmodo in an email. “This study we just published shows this correlation in a much larger sample and will hopefully inspire more work on the mechanisms underlying this correlation.”

This type of study can only demonstrate a correlation between temperature and mental health, and not directly prove a cause and effect link. And it's still unclear exactly how this relationship might work, if it actually exists. It's unclear whether depression increases our body temperature, for example, or whether higher body temperature increases the risk of feeling depressed — or perhaps it can be both, depending on the situation.

“This link is particularly fascinating because there is data showing that when people recover from depression, regardless of how much they have improved, their temperature tends to regulate itself. Next, we have more recent data suggesting that temperature-based interventions can reduce symptoms of depression,” Mason said. “For example, data has shown that the use of heat-based treatments, particularly infrared sauna, causes a sharp increase in body temperature. These increases in body temperature engage the body's self-cooling mechanisms (think, sweat) and can lead to subsequent decreases in body temperature (we sweat, we cool down).

Mason and his team are already beginning to explore the practical implications of their research. They have completed their first sauna study, with peer-reviewed data to be published later this year, and they are currently recruiting volunteers for their second. HEAT bed study, which will test whether adding sauna sessions to cognitive behavioral therapy can improve outcomes for people with clinical depression. It's possible that one day, sauna or other temperature-related treatments could be used regularly to ward off depression, Mason noted.

“These data are exciting because they may suggest a body-based treatment for depression that does not involve medications or traditional psychotherapy,” she said.

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