6 Ways Saunas Can Reduce Symptoms of Depression
Saunas reduce symptoms of depression through a variety of positive effects they have within the body. Studies have even shown that consistent sauna use can be as effective, if not more, than anti-depressants.
Although I have never personally struggled with chronic depression, I had my bought with depressive thoughts, lack of motivation, fatigue, brain fog, poor focus, etc as a result of thyroid issues. Thankfully, my own hormones have been stabilized and I no longer struggle with these overwhelming symptoms. I do, however, know multiple individuals who are close to me who struggle with mild to extreme depression which inspired me to research this topic more in-depth.
As a regular sauna user, I was drawn to this natural therapy because of the amazing effects it can have on brain health and preventing diseases like Alzheimers and Dementia. I knew there were a multitude of other amazing benefits and dove head first into the many ways sauna therapy can reduce depression and the many accompanying symptoms.
how Saunas Reduce Symptoms of Depression
- Reduces cortisol levels
- Saunas Increase Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF)
- Saunas Increase Norepinephrine Levels
- Saunas Reduce Symptoms of Chronic Fatigue
- Saunas Help Eliminate Heavy Metals
- Saunas Increase Deep Sleep
1. Saunas Reduce Cortisol Levels
Cortisol is known as the “stress” hormone secreted by the adrenals when the body (yes, this includes your mind) is under some kind of threat. In the past (think caveman), the threat of personal harm or even death was present daily. This release of cortisol from our adrenals paired with a surge of sugar from our liver would give our bodies the ability to quickly respond to a dangerous situation and hopefully live to learn another lesson.
Unfortunately, despite living in a world where we no longer face death by wild animals (well, at least not in first world countries) our bodies cannot distinguish between true danger and just a bad day at work. Traffic on the freeway, an argument with your significant other, and chronic worry can all trigger the release of cortisol in our system. The build-up of this cortisol can wreak havoc on our minds and bodies. Many of us are living in an almost constant state of fight-or-flight which can lead to fatigue, memory/concentration problems, etc. For those struggling with depression, the build-up of cortisol only intensifies feelings of anxiety and sadness.
Sauna use reduces overall cortisol levels in a roundabout way. A sauna session is actually a stressor on the body. The high temperature forces the body to work hard to cool down and will actually cause the release of cortisol. As you begin to regularly expose your body to this type of “stress” your body will begin to adjust and be able to “handle” the stress much more efficiently. As your body becomes stronger you become more resilient to stressful situations in general and do not release cortisol as readily as it once did.
2. Saunas Increase Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF)
Saunas reduce symptoms of depression by increasing BDNF. Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is a protein produced by the body that protects against mental diseases and improves mood. BDNF plays a critical role in both protecting and repairing brain cells as well as creating new brain cells! Many individuals who struggle with chronic anxiety and/or depression present reduced levels of BDNF.
This protein is considered by many researchers to be a natural antidepressant. A study examined the effects of sauna use vs. standard antidepressant medication on relieving symptoms. The research revealed that sauna use was 2.5 times more effective at relieving symptoms of major depression!
3. Saunas Increase Norepinephrine Levels
Norepinephrine is a hormone and neurotransmitter that supports focus and attention, another common symptom of depression. Multiple studies have shown that sauna use significantly increases levels of norepinephrine. One study had a group of women spend 20 minutes in a sauna, two times per week and found that their norepinephrine levels increased by 86%!
Along with stimulating increased production of norepinephrine, heat stress allows the body to store greater amounts of this hormone for later release. For many struggling with focus and attention medications are prescribed that improve the uptake of norepinephrine. As saunas have proven so effective at increasing norepinephrine uptake many are looking to them as alternative treatments for attention and focus disorders like depression and ADHD.
4. Saunas Reduce Symptoms of Chronic Fatigue
Fatigue is a common symptom of depression, often the most debilitating one. Fatigue, likewise, can create a cascade of further symptoms like memory and concentration deficits, sleep disturbances, headaches, joint and muscle pain, and gastrointestinal and immune system dysfunction. Several studies demonstrate that regular infrared sauna sessions significantly reduced chronic fatigue in participants.
One study in particular, looked at the effects of sauna therapy vs. prednisolone (a medication for those with chronic fatigue). Surprisingly, participants utilizing daily sauna sessions reported dramatically improved symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, including fatigue, pain, and sleep disturbances. The group assigned to take prednisolone as their fatigue treatment did not report any improvements in their fatigue or related symptoms.
5. Saunas Help Eliminate Heavy Metals
An unassuming factor in mental illness can often be a build-up of heavy metal toxicity in the body. High levels of heavy metals can wreak havoc on the body and lead to symptoms such as memory loss, mental confusion, irritability, fatigue, immune dysfunction, weight gain, digestion problems, allergies, high blood pressure, skin rashes, and heart problems.
Sweating is the body’s main method for excreting these heavy metals from our bodies. Unfortunately, the average person does not sweat nearly enough to detox their bodies at a fast enough rate. Many barely sweat at all depending on their exercise routine and biological makeup. Sauna use (infrared sauna use even more so), enables to body to sweat out toxins and heavy metals in particular. Sweating can eliminate compounds such as PCBs, metals, and toxins that are stored in fat cells. When these cells are heated (again, infrared saunas can heat the cells much better than standard) they undergo lipolysis and release toxins.
Multiple studies have shown that sauna use can reduce levels of heavy metals in the body and actually normalize their levels altogether. Many doctors argue that “sweating” should be the first treatment option for those suffering from heavy metal build-up in the body.
6. Saunas Promote Deep Sleep
As your core heats, muscles loosen, your body begins to release more endorphins and detox from toxic overload, the body is able to reach a heightened sense of relaxation. Along with this, in the evenings, our core temperature drops stimulating our brain it is time to sleep. Sauna use before bed will intensify this signal to your brain as your body begins to cool drastically from the heat of the sauna.
I hope this article has been encouraging and plants a few seeds that lead you to continue your own research on this topic! This article in no way should replace the advice of a medical professional, but rather provide insight into a more natural method of healing and supporting the body that many health professionals fail to mention.
I always welcome more information so please feel free to comment below with your knowledge and/or links to other research articles!
Other articles & Resources:
Hussain, Joy, Cohen, & Marc. (2018, April 24). Clinical Effects of Regular Dry Sauna Bathing: A Systematic Review. Retrieved from https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2018/1857413/
Janssen, C. W. (2016, August 01). Whole-Body Hyperthermia for Treating Major Depressive Disorder. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/2521478
Pilch, W., Pokora, I., Szyguła, Z., Pałka, T., Pilch, P., Cisoń, T., . . . Wiecha, S. (2013, December 31). Effect of a single finnish sauna session on white blood cell profile and cortisol levels in athletes and non-athletes. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3916915/
Soejima, Y., Munemoto, T., Masuda, A., Uwatoko, Y., Miyata, M., & Tei, C. (2015). Effects of Waon therapy on chronic fatigue syndrome: A pilot study. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25748743
The Science of Saunas. (2018, May 14). Retrieved from https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/article/biohacking-articles/science-of-sauna/
Tsan, M., & Gao, B. (2009, June). Heat shock proteins and immune system. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19276179