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Why having hot baths may help to treat depression

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 2018-10-26 Rosie Fitzmaurice

© Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited It's no secret that a hot bath at night is settling, relaxing and can help to wash off the most stressful of days.

New research has found that taking a warm bath twice a week may also help to relieve symptoms of depression, even more than physical exercise. 

In a small study, researchers from the University of Freiburg, Germany, set out to compare the effects of taking regular hot baths with regular exercise on 45 patients who were suffering from severe to moderate depression. Exercise is already a recommended intervention for depression, and research continues to stack up that it's just as good for our minds as it is our bodies. 

During the eight-week trial subjects were randomly assigned to either soak in a 40C degree bath for up to 30 minutes twice a week or to take part in two 45-50 minute sessions of moderately intense aerobic exercise.

© Getty The baths were always taken in the afternoon, between 2p.m. and 6p.m, while the exercise consisted of warming up, walking, jogging, stretching and strengthening elements outdoors.

The researchers then measured the participants' mood using something called the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale score, a widely used depression rating scale. They found that those who took regular baths saw a significant improvement in their depression score, a reduction of nearly six points, compared to a three-point improvement for those who exercised, suggesting bathing regularly may well be a more effective means of helping to treat depression.

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The authors emphasise in the study that patients who bathed began to see a substantial improvement in their mood after the first two weeks of treatment, while exercising took longer to have a significant effect.

Bathing, they conclude, seems to be a fast-acting, low-cost and accessible method of improving depressive symptoms, particularly for those who have difficulty exercising.

a cat sitting in front of a window: luxury-bath-soak-unsplash-25-10.jpg © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited luxury-bath-soak-unsplash-25-10.jpg

Why does a warm bath help?

The researchers suggest that taking warm baths may help those suffering from depression because it changes our circadian rhythm, a cycle of physiological processes, often referred to as the "body clock" that tells us when to eat and sleep, which is disturbed among people who suffer from depression.

"Body core temperature in depressed patients is elevated during the night, while quality is best when the core body temperature decreases, so this change in temperature may improve sleep quality," the study reads. "Sleep disturbances are an important mechanism contributing to depression."

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It's important to note that the study is limited in its tiny sample size, and the fact that a number of the subjects in the exercise group dropped out, so further research is needed into the relationship between the bathing and depression.

Even so, let this be a reminder to take some time tonight, run yourself a bath, load it up with epsom salts, and relax. Glass of red optional. 

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