Scientists Have Discovered a New Link to Depression in an Unexpected Vital Sign: Body Temperature

The study, led by researchers from the University of California San Francisco, involved more than 20,000 participants from more than 100 countries.

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Pablo Martínez-Juarez

Depression is a condition that affects more than just our brains. Like many other illnesses, this mental health disorder can also impact other aspects of our physiology, such as our body temperature.

Temperature and depression. A recent study, led by researchers at the University of California San Francisco and published by the journal Scientific Reports, has found a connection between body temperature and depression. The research team observed a positive relationship between the two variables, meaning that the presence of depressive symptoms was associated with higher body temperatures among the participants.

This relationship was proportional: The more severe the symptoms, the higher the body temperatures. The researchers also noticed a potential link between temperature variability and depressive symptoms, but it wasn’t found to be statistically significant, so no definitive conclusions can be drawn in this area.

Despite the statistics, there’s still little known about this relationship. For example, it remains unclear whether the increase in body temperature could be due to a loss of temperature control, an increase in temperature generation through metabolic processes, or a combination of factors.

More than 20,000 participants. The research team compiled data from 20,880 participants across 106 countries over a seven-month period in 2020. During the study, participants wore a device with a thermometer to measure their body temperature and reported their temperature and symptoms of depression daily.

“To our knowledge, this is the largest study to date to examine the association between body temperature–assessed using both self-report methods and wearable sensors–and depressive symptoms in a geographically broad sample,” psychiatrist Ashley Mason, a co-author of the study, stated in a press release.

An old suspicion. This might be the largest study to date, but it’s certainly not the first to suggest a link between body temperature and depressive symptoms. A study from 2003 already pointed to that connection and its relation to the 5-HTT protein, also known as the “serotonin transporter.”

Correlation and causation. The more recent study indicates a connection between temperature and depression but doesn’t establish the direction of causation, if there was any. Based on the known data, it’s pretty much unclear whether depression causes an increase in body temperature or if elevated body temperature may contribute to depression.

Additionally, the analysis doesn’t rule out the possibility that an underlying factor, such as stress or inflammatory processes, could independently cause both depressive symptoms and an increase in body temperature.

Cold or heat therapy? Understanding what’s going on can help us better understand depression and, thus, lead to better treatments for it. Until now, heat has been used to improve patients’ conditions. In fact, the study team believes this type of therapy may work as a “rebound effect,” aiding the body in restoring its ability to regulate temperature.

Image | Polina Tankilevitch

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