Regular hot baths – or taking the waters at a spa – could be better than exercise for treating depression.
Researchers at the University of Freiburg in Germany conducted a small study of 45 medically stable outpatients with depressive disorder. For the eight-week pilot study, participants were split into two groups. One group was assigned the task of soaking in 40 degrees Celsius water for 30 minutes twice a week at a spa or at home, after which they were wrapped in blankets and hot water bottles for another 20 minutes. The second group was assigned to do 40 to 45 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise twice a week.
The researchers theorized that raising the core body temperature during the day could help regulate circadian rhythm, which could improve sleep quality. “Core body temperature in depressed patients is elevated during the night, while sleep quality is best when the core body temperature decreases; thus, change of body temperature might improve sleep quality.”
Eight weeks later, subjects taking regular hot baths showed an improvement of 5.9 points on the Hamilton Depression scale, while the exercise group had improved by only 3.2 points.
There are limitations to the study, including the small sample size, as well as the fact that a majority of the physical exercise group (18 out of 23) dropped out. The authors point out, however, that this study population can be difficult to motivate to active treatment and that hot baths are an easier form of treatment than exercise. Also, the study appears to confirm findings of previous research that taking a warm bath before bed can improve sleep, “by dilating blood vessels in the skin, which helps the body to dump excess heat.” This is according to the Guardian, which also states that this only works if you keep your bedroom relatively cool.
Recent research further related to thermotherapy has found that taking regular saunas may decrease the risk of stroke, dementia, and infections such as pneumonia.
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