Could this Ancient Practice Cure Depression?
Nearly every culture in the world has a tradition of using heat for healing. The Romans, Greeks, Scandinavians, and many other cultures used saunas. Native Americans used “sweat lodges,” and many indigenous cultures used similar practices. But today, while we do still see saunas and sweats used for healing, the practice is largely limited to native cultures and “alternative” medicine. In the mainstream, the sauna or steam room is viewed as nothing more than a high-end relaxation technique—and a pricey one at that.
But this summer, a maverick psychiatrist making waves by suggesting we should re-think that view. According to him, these ancient heat-healing practices have the power to cure one of the most common but intractable forms of mental illness: depression.
Feed a fever, starve depression?
Dr. Charles Raison didn’t set out to find a treatment for depression. He was just intrigued by another culture.
While working as a psychiatrist he met a psychologist who was, incredibly, a former Tibetan monk and they became fast friends. They often discussed Tibet and the beliefs and practices of the monks there. But his interest soon became scientific curiosity. It was these discussions that fueled what would later become his research into depression and body heat.
Now, if you’ve ever read about Tibetan monks, they’re credited with some amazing…well…powers. Some of these, like the supposed ability to levitate, simply defy rational belief. Others, however, are have been scientifically documented and amount to “mind over matter” to an incredible degree—a sort of biofeedback on steroids.
In other words: They might not be able to fly, but these guys really can do other things that may seem impossible.
One of these documented abilities is the capacity to generate body heat through something called “tummo.” This is a meditative practice that involves specific breathing patterns and visualizations, and it can raise core body temperature to fever levels. In fact, back in 2013 researchers documented Tibetan nuns drying wet sheets wrapped around their bodies—in sub-zero temperatures—purely by using tummo-induced body heat.
This really intrigued Raison. You might even say he became obsessed. He was fascinated by the idea that body temperature could be controlled purely by the brain, and he wanted to know how the feeling of “bliss”—bliss being the ultimate goal of many Eastern traditions of meditation--was connected to the immune system and to body temperature.
It may sound silly on the surface. But what Raison was really wondering was whether he was looking at the chicken or the egg. In other words—did this feeling, brought on by meditation, raise the body’s temperature? Or would raising your temperature artificially bring on a feeling of bliss?
He found his answer when he uncovered a long-forgotten machine in a hospital basement.
Big Pharma doesn’t want this treatment to go mainstream
In 2003, a couple of physical therapists were digging around in the castoffs in a hospital basement when they found a long-forgotten machine.
It was similar to a far-infrared sauna. The patient would lie on a bed or table covered with a tent. The tent would get increasingly hotter, eventually raising the patient’s core body temperature just as if they were running a high fever.
It was an out-of-date model of a machine currently being used to treat cancer patients.
It seems that heat therapy was showing some promise for shrinking or even destroying tumors. But cancer doctors using the treatment were reporting an interesting side effect: depressed cancer patients were coming out of the machine with a whole new outlook on life. They went in depressed, and came out…not depressed.
These guys teamed up with a psychiatrist and ran an experiment, with remarkable results. A few years later they met Raison at a conference, and he was hooked by their story. He helped them publish a paper on their findings and set out to replicate their results with a better-designed study.
And replicate the results he did.
The original study didn’t include a control group—patients who thought they were getting treated but who weren’t. Raison remedied that. His participants were split into two groups—one which was exposed to enough heat to raise their core temperature, and one that just lay in a warm tent for a couple of hours.
The results were so amazing that many psychiatrists flatly refuse to believe his conclusions in spite of the statistics that back them up. They refuse to admit that anything but a drug could be effective. “If this is the real effect size,” one neuroscientist actually says, “this would be more effective than any other treatment in the whole of psychiatry, and I think that’s rather unlikely.”
But the study results tell a different story.
This blows drug treatments out of the water
It was a small study. It only included twenty-nine people. Of those, 9 saw their depression improve—and improve significantly and immediately. The effect lasted about six weeks.
Of the control group, only one person got better.
Now, that may not sound too impressive. 9 out of 29 isn’t much. But here’s the thing: antidepressants don’t work any better than a placebo, statistically. Antidepressant drugs are effective about 33% of the time…and a placebo is effective about 31% percent of the time. So if we were talking about a drug treatment, we could expect one person to get better. One. Not nine.
That means Raison’s treatment was nine times more effective than antidepressant drugs.
That, folks, is pretty incredible.
Of course someone needs to do a bigger study with more people. And regardless of the result I can guarantee we’ll never see this treatment go mainstream. Antidepressants (and the antipsychotics like Abilify that are prescribed when antidepressants don’t work) are one of Big Pharma’s biggest cash cows. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of it.
Because let’s face it: this “fever machine” is nothing but an infrared sauna with a fancy name. You can try this treatment yourself for the price of a two-hour session in the sauna.
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