Depression can affect absolutely anyone, regardless of age or background. And while there’s a much greater awareness these days of mental health issues, the methods for tackling them are still up for debate. One established treatment for depression, though, is exercise. But it turns out that there’s an easier everyday activity that may be even more effective.
Depression can of course severely impact your life, particularly when it develops into a long-term condition. People can even spend weeks, months or years feeling relentlessly unhappy. Typically, those coping with depression will experience a loss of interest in things they used to enjoy too. They will also experience other symptoms such as anxiety and fatigue.
According to the World Health Organization, over 300 million people worldwide have some form of depression. And the National Institute of Mental Health believes that 16.2 million adults in America experienced a depressive episode in 2016. An “episode” counts as at least two weeks of feeling low. This is also combined with other symptoms including loss of interest, lack of sleep and no appetite.
Fortunately, though, the stigma around mental health conditions – including depression – has been broken down significantly over the past few years. For instance, a 2018 YouGov survey found that 88 percent of U.K. adults are more likely to discuss mental health issues now than in the past. A number of campaigns by big-name brands have also helped raise awareness.
Yet although more are now willing to talk about depression, many people still echo the same old soundbites when it comes to the condition. As the U.K.’s National Health Service highlights, telling someone to pull themselves together is no real help. And in 2015 author S.E. Smith argued in The Guardian that the problem is people think depression is “easily understood.”
There is no fixed method for beating depression, either – though some have suggested several ways to tackle it. For instance, Japanese academic Hidefumi Yoshida recommends a regular crying session. “The act of crying is more effective than laughing or sleeping in reducing stress,” he told the Japan Times in 2018. “If you cry once a week, you can live a stress-free life.”
And one of the more common techniques for beating depression is exercise. It’s thought that the mood-boosting nature of physical activity can be useful for working through depressive episodes. However, a lack of energy can be symptomatic of the condition and that could make it hard for those affected to get going in the first place.
Now, though, a study published in October 2018 has found another potential method for fighting off depression. You see, German researchers believe that simply taking a daily hot bath could do wonders for your mood. And according to their results, it could actually be more effective than exercise for tackling depression.
So how did the study work? Well, analysts at Germany’s University of Freiburg took 45 participants and split them into two groups. They told the first group to bathe in water at 104 °F for a maximum of 30 minutes every afternoon. The participants were then to use hot water bottles and blankets to keep themselves warm for another 20 minutes.
The second group, meanwhile, did around 45 minutes of aerobic exercise two times a week. Then, after eight weeks, the researchers scored both groups on the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D). At the beginning, the average score for everyone was 21.7, signifying severe depression among the participants.
Following the experiment, however, the group taking regular baths fared much better. They had actually dropped six points on average on the HAM-D scale. But the group performing regular exercise had only dropped by around three points. This therefore suggested that baths had been more effective than exercise for tackling depression.
Yet these findings perhaps aren’t that big of a surprise; science backs them up. Apparently, it’s all about your circadian rhythm. This is your inner body clock, which regulates sleeping patterns, complete with all the highs and lows you feel on a daily basis. So if you haven’t had enough sleep, for example, you could notice the post-lunch lull, around 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., quite strongly.
These circadian rhythms are also strongly linked to our body’s core temperature. That’s because it too rises and falls over the course of a 24-hour period. Specifically, it elevates during the day and drops at night – at which point your body releases melatonin, a hormone that helps you fall asleep.
However, people with depression tend to experience irregular temperature rhythms. This can make it difficult to sleep – hence one of the symptoms of depression often being insomnia. It makes sense, then, that taking steps to strengthen your circadian rhythm, such as manually regulating your core temperature with a hot bath, could improve your symptoms.
This technique also seems to go hand-in-hand with other treatments, such as bright light therapy. A 2016 study actually found that exposure to bright lights in the morning could help to improve participants’ circadian rhythms. This could, in turn, go some way to alleviating their mental health issues.
The impact on your inner body clock isn’t the only reason baths can be a big help, though. You see, one factor that may cause depression is a lack of the mood-boosting hormone serotonin. And studies have shown that this can be countered by an increase in body temperature, which triggers a bigger release of the hormone.
Yet it’s hard to draw sweeping results from the Freiburg study due to its small size. Of the 45 people that participated, after all, only two thirds made it to the end. And only ten participants in the exercise group kept it up for the entire eight-week period. Two people also dropped out of the bathing group.
But then again, taking a hot bath isn’t the most taxing thing in the world, so it might be worth trying out. It’s also much easier to do than strenuous exercise. This is perhaps reflected by the number of people who made it through the study in each group.
Of course, there’s an art to taking a good bath. And you’ll want to make sure that you do it properly to maximize the benefits. Setting aside specific time to do so, when you won’t be interrupted, is a good first step. You should also bear in mind the temperature of both the bath and the room. You can even add essential oils to heighten the experience.
Further studies are required to confirm the findings of the Freiburg researchers. But it’s still good to know that there’s a scientific basis for taking baths to combat depression. And while it won’t cure you completely, it’s a useful tool to help you take care of yourself as best you can – particularly when you don’t feel up to exercising.