Depression may be associated with a slightly elevated body temperature, according to a new study that raises some intriguing questions about whether there might be mental health benefits to helping some people lower their temperatures.
“These data are exciting because they point to the potential of a unique body-based treatment for depression that doesn’t involve medications or traditional psychotherapy,” says lead study author Ashley Mason, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco. “We might be able to intervene directly on body temperature to address depression symptoms.”
Does Depression Affect Body Temperature — or Vice Versa?
It only took a slight increase in body temperature — 0.1 degrees C (roughly 0.2 degrees F) — for people to have a significantly greater chance of experiencing depression symptoms.
There are, however, a lot of questions left unanswered by the study.
For starters, it’s unclear whether depression might interfere with the body’s ability to keep itself cool — leading to higher thermometer readouts — or whether having a higher body temperature might somehow contribute to depression. Beyond this, the study didn’t examine whether any interventions designed to change body temperature might directly impact the frequency or severity of depressive symptoms.
However, it’s possible that there’s a connection between body temperature and mood because there are sensory pathways in the brain that play a role in regulating both of these things, says study coauthor Christopher Lowry, PhD, a professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Heat and Mood Regulation
“The same pathways that convey warm temperature sensory information to thermoregulatory systems also convey that information to brain regions that are involved in control of mood and cognitive function,” Dr. Lowry says. When these pathways in the brain malfunction, people may be more prone to depression and also more apt to have higher body temperatures, Lowry adds.
Scientists are now studying whether exposing people to heat, whether via sauna therapy or hot baths, might stimulate the body’s natural cooling systems and also repair malfunctioning pathways in the brain that play a role in mood regulation, Lowry says. But these experiments are still too preliminary to prove whether heat therapy can actually treat depression.
It’s too soon, though, for people to focus on regulating their body temperature as a way to improve their mood, says Teodor Postolache, MD, a psychiatry professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, who wasn’t involved in the new study. And people shouldn’t assume at this point that they have depression simply because they notice their body temperature is a bit higher than usual.
“It is premature to do so,” Postolache says. This is due in part to the wide variety of factors — including time of year, sleep schedules, exercise habits, heat exposure, eating habits, and genetics — that can all impact body temperature. “Temperature is too dependent on environment,” Dr. Postolache says.