Taking hot baths could be a better way of treating depression than exercising, a study has found.
People who go to a spa for an hour twice a week show better improvements in their mental health than those who work out regularly.
Experts suggest this could be because it restores the body’s natural temperature rhythm over the course of a day, which can be disrupted in depressed patients.
Regular bathing is faster-acting and easier than exercise, scientists said, and the study showed people are more likely to continue with it over the long term.
Researchers from the University of Freiburg in Germany tested the effects of thermal baths on 45 people with depression.
They said: ‘Hyperthermic baths seems to be a fast-acting, safe and easy accessible method leading to clinically relevant improvement in depressive disorder after two weeks.
‘It is also suitable for persons who have problems performing exercise training.’
The people in the study, who had an average age of 48, all had moderate to severe depression, which was measured on the commonly used HAM-D scale.
A score of 19 or higher out of 50 indicates someone has severe depression – the average score among participants was 21.7.
They were randomly assigned to either twice-weekly spa bathing, or two sessions of moderate exercise a week and their depression retested.
People in the bathing group saw an average drop of six points within a fortnight, whereas exercise patients only shaved three points off their score.
This suggests someone with severe depression could cut their symptoms to moderate depression by bathing, or somebody already on a moderate score could drop to mild.
And whereas 13 out of 23 people dropped out of the exercise group, only two out of 22 refused to complete the hot bath treatments.
All the bathers had to do was sit in a 40°C (104°F) bath for 30 minutes, then wrap themselves in blankets and hot water bottles for another 20 minutes.
People in the exercise group had to do a moderate aerobic workout, such as running, dancing or swimming, for 40 to 45 minutes.
Although the exact causes of depression are not certain, it is believed a disrupted circadian rhythm – or body clock – could be to blame, the New Scientist reports.
The circadian rhythm is the physical and chemical changes the body goes through throughout the day.
This includes the fluctuation of a person’s body temperature which rises in the morning and falls during the night.
In people with depression their body temperature may not regulate itself properly, and taking hot baths could help correct this – the baths in the study raised participants’ body temperature by around 2°C (35.6°F).
A psychiatrist from the Black Country Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, Nick Stafford, told the New Scientist: ‘I’m not surprised they found a benefit, I’m just surprised no one has tried doing this before.’
WHAT IS DEPRESSION?
While it is normal to feel down from time to time, people with depression may feel persistently unhappy for weeks or months on end.
Depression can affect anyone at any age and is fairly common – approximately one in ten people are likely to experience at some point in their life.
Depression is a genuine health condition which people cannot just ignore or ‘snap out of it’.
Symptoms and effects vary, but can include constantly feeling upset or hopeless, or losing interest in things you used to enjoy.
It can also cause physical symptoms such as problems sleeping, tiredness, having a low appetite or sex drive, and even feeling physical pain.
In extreme cases it can lead to suicidal thoughts.
Traumatic events can trigger it, and people with a family history may be more at risk.
It is important to see a doctor if you think you or someone you know has depression, as it can be managed with lifestyle changes, therapy or medication.