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Last Updated: 30.05.23

Dr. Ashley Mason on Sauna Use for Depression, Conquering Insomnia, and Mindfully Breaking Bad Habits

Dr. Ashley Mason, a clinical psychologist, directs the Sleep, Eating, and Affect Laboratory at UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. Her research explores sauna’s clinical utility for depression and focuses on non-​​pharmacological interventions for depression, insomnia, and overeating, offering alternative treatment avenues for these conditions.

Key Takeaways

High level takeaways from the episode.

Dr. Ashley Mason: Director of the Sleep, Eating and Affect Laboratory at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at UCSF

  • Specializes in nonpharmacological treatments for changing behavior, such as sleep, eating behavior disorders, and mood disorders

Whole body hyperthermia: more intense than sauna, involves consistent heating for a longer period, head is outside the heating element

Sauna: less intense, shorter sessions, whole body (including head) inside the heating element

2016 study by Janssen et al. tested whole body hyperthermia as a treatment for clinical depression

  • Results showed significant drops in depression scores within a week, maintained six weeks later

Whole body hyperthermia showed effects within a week, faster than SSRIs (antidepressants)

  • One session of whole body hyperthermia had lasting effects for six weeks

Literature shows temperature dysregulation in people with depression

  • Higher nighttime body temperatures, less efficient thermoregulatory cooling

Successful treatments (e.g., ECT) often result in decreased core body temperature alongside decreased depression symptoms

  • Hanusch study found a correlation between decreased body temperature and decreased depression after whole body hyperthermia treatment

Sauna use may affect thermal regulation and body temperature, potentially impacting depression symptoms

Unclear data on whether stress can cause dysregulation of body temperature

Inflammatory response can induce depressive symptoms in healthy individuals

  • Sauna use can affect inflammation and potentially improve depression

Sauna use mimics moderate cardiovascular exercise

  • Similar physiological responses: increased blood flow, sweating, elevated heart rate, blood pressure changes

Studies show exercise can improve depressive symptoms in people with clinical depression

  • Sauna use may help depression in a similar way to cardiovascular exercise

New study focusing on the effects of sauna on depression and cardiovascular disease

Developing accessible and affordable whole body hyperthermia treatments for depression

  • Experiment: Testing various saunas to find one that can raise core body temperature to 101.3°F (the temperature used in previous studies)
  • Challenges: Most saunas cannot reach the desired temperature without causing discomfort or health risks

Biomarkers and heat shock proteins play a role in adaptation to heat stress

  • Potential benefits for both mental and physical health conditions

Sauna is more accessible and easier to comply with than exercise for some individuals

  • Applicable to those with disabilities or who are not physically active

Measuring biomarkers in studies:

  • BDNF (Brain-​​derived neurotrophic factor)
  • Heat shock proteins
  • Inflammatory cytokines
  • CRP (C‑reactive protein)

BDNF role in depression:

  • Involved in neuroplasticity
  • Exercise increases BDNF, potentially helping with neuroplasticity

Combining whole body hyperthermia with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:

  • Idea comes from traditional communal sauna experiences
  • Hyperthermia may make people more willing to engage in therapy

Opening the door for more research on different types of sauna and heat therapy

  • Finnish sauna, hot baths, jacuzzis
  • Many research questions still need to be answered in the field of heat therapy and depression

Insomnia: difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early

  • Must occur at least three nights a week for at least three months and be distressing
  • Different from chronotypes, as it is a sleep problem

Major changes in life can cause insomnia

  • Retirement, changes in relationship status, losing a job, having a child, etc.

Behaviors that maintain insomnia are often different from what caused it

  • Bad sleep hygiene behaviors, such as using electronics in bed or napping during the day, can perpetuate insomnia

Recommended book for insomnia: “Quiet Your Mind and Get to Sleep” by Dr. Rachel Manber

Techniques to help reduce harmful behaviors

  • Being mindful during the behavior
  • Changing the reward by being mindful of it
  • Checking in with your body and emotions


Non-​​pharmacologic Treatments for Chronic Insomnia



  • Dr. Ashley Mason on Sauna Use for Depression, Conquering Insomnia, and Mindfully Breaking Bad Habits

    Found My Fitness #67

    Dr. Ashley Mason, clinical psychologist, explores sauna’s use for depression at UCSF, emphasizing non-​​pharmacological interventions for treating depression, insomnia, and overeating.

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