Depression is a tragically common experience for many people. According to the World Health Organization, almost 7% of American adults struggled with a “major depressive episode” in the last year. Besides counseling and taking antidepressants, experts recommend exercise to help reduce symptoms, but when you’re depressed, it can be very difficult to work out. A new study suggests that hot baths could be just as (or even more) effective.
Researchers at Germany’s Freiburg University performed the study which examined 45 individuals with moderate to severe depression. Half were told to work out for 45 minutes twice a week, while the other half took 30-minute hot baths, followed by 20 minutes of relaxing with a hot water bottle and warm blanket, also twice a week. After eight weeks, they were re-tested with the scale (known as the HAM-D) that measured their original depression. Those who took hot baths dropped by six points, while those who exercised only dropped three points. What could explain this difference?
The fact that hot baths raise a person’s body temperature and help normalize circadian rhythms could be the reason. A 2017 study from the University of Madison-Wisconsin indicated that raising the core temp of a person’s body to 101.3 ℉ resulted in a 4-point drop on the HAM-D scale after six weeks. However, neither this study or the Freiburg one should be considered settled science. Both were critiqued for using very few people and the Freiburg study has not been peer-reviewed yet. Also, 13 of the people assigned to exercise dropped out, so that would definitely have an impact on the final results.
However, if you feel hot baths help your depression, go for it. Whatever self-care works for you and is not harmful should be embraced, especially when going on a new antidepressant for the first time, since those tend to take a few weeks or months to start affecting your mood.