Heat yoga can help reduce symptoms of depression in adults—so much so that researchers suggest combining heat and yoga should be considered as a potential treatment for moderate to severe depression.
The news comes from research published on Monday at Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Although it was a small, randomized clinical trial with only 80 participants, the findings showed serious promise for the effects of Bikram yoga (one type of heated or hot yoga) to symptoms of depression.
“Yoga and heat-based interventions could potentially change the course of treatment for patients with depression by providing a non-medication-based approach with the added bonus of physical benefits,” lead author of the study Dr. Maren Nyerdirector of yoga studies in the Depression Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, said in a press release.
Here’s what you need to know about the new research, how heat and yoga can work together to ease symptoms of depression, and who would benefit most from trying a hot yoga practice.
For the study, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital recruited 80 patients with depression and divided them into two groups: one group received 90-minute sessions of Bikram yoga practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees, while one group was placed on a waiting list and they cannot participate in yoga practice during the trial.
The researchers followed the groups for eight weeks. The Bikram yoga group was instructed to attend at least two hours of yoga each week—in total, these participants averaged 10.3 hours over an eight-week period.
“People who received the hot yoga intervention experienced a significantly greater improvement in depressive symptoms, compared to patients who were on a waiting list,” the study’s senior author David Mischoulon, MD, PhDdirector of the Depression Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, told the Health. “They got those benefits by only attending about one class a week.”
At the end of the trial, the researchers noted that more than half of the yoga participants had a 50% or more reduction in their depressive symptoms, compared to only 6.3% of the waitlist participants. Additionally, 44% of yoga participants experienced such a large reduction in depressive symptoms that they were considered in remission.
“We were surprised that it was so potent at a once-weekly dose,” said Nyer, who is also an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Health.
Although the trial shows promise for yoga as a potential treatment for depression, researchers say the current findings may not be applicable to everyone and that additional studies are needed.
“The study primarily recruited college-educated women and as such, the results may be limited in generalizability,” Mischoulon said. “We found a higher proportion of minority women compared to our other studies, which was encouraging and suggested interest in this intervention in minority communities.”
Additionally, the study only looked at one specific type of heated yoga, although there are numerous types and temperatures for heated yoga.
“There are many different types of heated yoga, although (Bikram) is the hottest form of heated yoga that we know of,” Mischoulon said.
“Studies need to be done to compare different temperatures of heated yoga for depression,” Nyer added. “For example, would some people benefit from a ‘milder’ temperature, or is the full heat of 105 degrees Fahrenheit necessary to target depression? We just don’t know in terms of evidence. This is a relatively new field of study.”
Although regular yoga without a warm-up has been studied as a potential for years treatment of depressionthe authors have several theories as to why yoga with heat may also help with symptoms of depression.
“Heat exposure affects inflammatory mechanisms in (humans). Inflammation is thought to be a potential cause of depression,” Mischoulon said. “We think that exposure to heat may trigger some chemical changes in the body that suppress inflammation and in turn may reduce symptoms of depression.”
According to Nyer, there is also evidence to suggest that people with depression may have a harder time regulating their body temperature — known as thermoregulation — and may run a higher temperature and not sweat as easily.
“The idea behind heat or treating depression with whole body hyperthermia is that it resets the thermoregulatory system and can actually lower body temperature from the slight rise seen in depression,” Nyer said.
As with any other form of exercise, Mischoulon said it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before starting yoga.
“Some people find the heat of the intervention very uncomfortable,” Mischoulon said. In fact, for this study, the researchers prepared the participants for the discomfort that often comes with hot yoga and how to deal with it.
“We prepared people to go into hot yoga with a 45-minute education given by the study’s (principal investigator) to make sure they knew what to hydrate, not to eat big meals, what to expect, how to manage their first time in the studio, and what to wear, etc.,” Nyer said.
There are also some people who might want to skip the hot aspect of hot yoga and try regular yoga on for size instead.
“People with certain medical conditions, such as heart or kidney disease or diabetes, should consult their doctor about participating in heated yoga,” Mischoulon said. “Yoga without heat can be a good alternative for these people, as the experience is less physically demanding.”
It’s also important to note that heated yoga isn’t yet a prescription “treatment” for depression — but researchers say there’s probably no harm in trying it if you’re working with a health care team.
“We usually caution people against self-medicating depression without the supervision of a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist,” Mischoulon said. “Certainly, people who are interested in trying hot yoga and are in good general health should do so and are likely to experience general health benefits, but if the goal is to treat a specific disease, it is best to proceed with supervision and advice from a physician.”
And when you’re in practice, it’s wise to listen to your body and not push yourself too hard—and realize that coming to class is half the challenge.
“This form of yoga is challenging, and depression comes with motivational and energetic challenges, so it takes a lot to get into that hot room. The very act of coming to a hot yoga class is a truly radical act of self-care,” said Nyer. “Appearing is a great start and something to be proud of.”