EEC_plansnapshot.pngCharles Raison, University of Arizona, likes to argue that it’s wrong to label mental disorders as disorders of the brain.

He says depression is better described as a brain-body disorder that involves peripheral systems – ie the bits of our bodies that send signals back to the brain.

Emotions, thought and behaviour arise not just from the activity of brain circuitry, but also from sensory-motor experiences of our external environment – what researchers call ’embodied cognition’.

“the brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies and their perceptually guided motions through the world do much of the work required to achieve our goals, replacing the need for complex internal mental representations” (Wilson and Golonka)

That last bit sounds encouraging; no more complex internal mental representations needed to understand why we can’t even get out of bed!

Too hot to handle (life)

Now consider that depression is associated with raised body temperature and disruption to the circadian rhythm that governs changes in body temperature throughout the 24h cycle.

It turns out that serotonin plays a big part in regulating body temperature, by being involved in sending messages from the body to brain to turn the heat down or up.

Raison and his colleagues are exploring whether the release of serotonin in the brain that is associated with thermoregulation also has an antidepressant effect. And that does seem to be the case.

saunaTheir research involves putting depressed people in a hyperthermia chamber and heating it to about 60C (140F). Heat to the skin in this way seems to activate a very specific neural pathway that causes the body to cool (by sort of kicking the body’s thermostat into action) but also to reduce depression symptoms.

 “Maybe some people are depressed not just totally because of their brain – maybe it’s in their skin; their skin is sending some wrong signal to the brain,” Charles Raison

In this video, Raison explains his thinking, and makes mention of time-honoured human practices of using saunas and sweat lodges (and more recent hot yoga).


Soaking in a really hot bath is one of the things that make me feel better. I wonder if the reason is Raison’s. To be investigated further.

Further reading

Somatic influences on subjective well-being and affective disorders: the convergence of thermosensory and central serotonergic systems, CL Raison et al (2015)

Embodied cognition is not what you think it is, AD Wilson and S Golonka (2013)

Depressed patients have higher body temperature: 5-HT transporter long promoter region effects, JL Rausch et a (2013)

Time and depression: when the internal clock does not work, G Hajak and M Landgreber (2010)

Whole-Body Hyperthermia for the Treatment of Major Depression: Associations With Thermoregulatory Cooling K Hanusch et al (2013)

Turn Up the Heat to Turn Down Depression? UA News

raised body temperature and depression: resetting the thermostat with heat

2 thoughts on “raised body temperature and depression: resetting the thermostat with heat

  • Maybe that’s why the Nordic countries love sauna’s so much too? They have dark long winters and this might be their way of rebalancing that …… Interesting Libby and I love a hot bath of an evening too since I stopped drinking. Have I been helping my recovery with this too? 🙂

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