Once upon a time, in the younger days of my great-grandparents, there existed the asylum. You may picture a dark, damp place filled with rusting iron beds, restraining devices and devastating wails. But what do the nurses of this time actually remember? It is something quite different, and arguably more humane: the water cure, also known as hydrotherapy.
Mental disorders and hydrotherapy have had a long, seemingly successful, relationship together. Adequate mastery of hydrotherapy techniques was actually a graduation requirement for 1930s nursing schools .
(On a quick nerd note: support for this form of treatment came from such distinguished names as Emil Kraepelin and Alois Alzheimer .)
The nurses of this era saw hydrotherapy as both a treatment and as a humane form of restraint to keep the patient from hurting him/herself and others. (To appreciate how it could be restraining consider the wet sheet wrap, in which the patient is tightly wound in multiple layers of wet sheets, tucked in so as not to easily be undone.) While lamentably labour-intensive and effective for only short periods of time, what the nurses do agree upon is that hydrotherapy had a consistently calming effect on even the most distressed patients .
In Spain today, there is actually a program for elderly pensioners that offers hydrotherapy for improving quality of life and autonomy . Studies on healthy individuals in this program have found hydrotherapy to increase mood, decrease pain (in men), alleviate depression (in women) and improve sleep.
One hypothesis is that depressive disorders arise from a lack of physiological stressors or “thermal exercise” in our modern day lives, which in turn adversely affects our central nervous system . It has been suggested that exposure to whole body cold showers acts in a manner similar to electroconvulsive therapy by providing a large-scale stimulus to the cold receptors in your skin (although without the adverse side effects) . Cold exposure also increases norepinephrine and beta-endorphins .
Is there any research on 2-3 minute cold showers for treating depression? No, just a long history of using hydrotherapy to treat mental illness. But what we do have are a couple of studies using cryotherapy.
Cryotherapy is another way to achieve brief full body cold exposure and has been demonstrated to improve anxiety, depression, life satisfaction, quality of life and well-being after as little as ten to fifteen treatment sessions [4,5].
Interestingly enough, abnormalities in temperature control have been previously noted in psychiatric disorders. In particular, antidepressants are thought to generate a cold-defense reaction in which decreased hypothalamic temperature leads to thermogenesis . In a similar vein, cold therapies are hypothesized to help reset core body temperature .
Could a little thermal exercise be what we need to fight depression? It may well be a therapy worth further exploration.
Harmon, R. B. Hydrotherapy in State Mental Hospitals in the Mid-Twentieth Century. Issues Ment. Health Nurs. 30, 491–494 (2009).
Latorre-Román, P. Á., Rentero-Blanco, M., Laredo-Aguilera, J. A. & García-Pinillos, F. Effect of a 12-day balneotherapy programme on pain, mood, sleep, and depression in healthy elderly people. Psychogeriatrics 15, 14–19 (2015).
Shevchuk, N. A. Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. Med. Hypotheses 70, 995–1001 (2008).
Szczepanska-Gieracha, J., Borsuk, P., Pawik, M. & Rymaszewska, J. Mental state and quality of life after 10 session whole-body cryotherapy. Psychol Heal. Med 19, 40–46 (2014).
Rymaszewska, J. & Ramsey, D. Whole body cryotherapy as a novel adjuvant therapy for depression and anxiety. Arch. Psychiatry Psychother. 10, 49–57 (2008).
Salerian, A. J., Saleri, N. G. & Salerian, J. A. Brain temperature may influence mood: A hypothesis. Med. Hypotheses 70, 497–500 (2008).
Photo credit: Geetanjal Khanna