Daily life with the COVID-19 pandemic has increased stressors—stressors most Americans have no experience dealing with. In fact, in a review of 3,166 papers examining the psychological impact of quarantine on mental health, 24 of which were included in an article published in the Lancet in March 2020, most studies reported negative psychological effects from quarantine including post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger. Stressors included longer quarantine duration, infection fears, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, inadequate information, financial loss, and stigma. Some researchers have suggested long-lasting effects.
According to a report from the pharmacy benefit management company, Express Scripts, between mid-February and mid-March 2020, use of anti-anxiety medications increased by 34.1%. The sampling included over 21 million people as part of a five-year study analyzing mental health prescriptions that the company had processed. Until the pandemic hit, many of the drugs were seeing a decline.
However, there may be ways to reduce the impact and stress of COVID-19 on mental health in both the short and long term by utilizing non-pharmaceutical approaches. Let’s examine the possibilities.
Infrared Therapy Helps with Depression
Because the COVID-19 pandemic is so new to everyone, including scientific researchers, not much is known about its impact on mental health specifically, or how the stay-at-home orders related to this situation may impact mental health. However, there is research regarding stress, depression, and mental health that may be applied to this situation.
Many psychiatric treatments work through placebo effects; the gold standard of testing any potential treatment is to compare its effects with a placebo. In a 2016 study published in the prestigious JAMA psychiatry journal, a team of psychiatric researchers led by Dr. Charles Raison, M.D., tested whether infrared therapy helped with chronic depression.
Subjects in the intervention group received one single near-infrared treatment, which increased their body core temperature to 38.5°C (101.3°F) before the treatment was stopped. Meanwhile, the subjects in the placebo control group received a single placebo treatment in an apparently identical apparatus with no infrared, their core body temperature remained on average of 37.7°C (99.8°F).
The infrared treatment reduced depression scores significantly more than placebo treatments. The infrared treatment reduced moderate to mild depression for over six weeks, with most of the improvements in the first two weeks. The authors claimed that the effects of infrared or moderate heat treatment lasted longer than the effects of a single dose of antidepressant drugs, such as ketamine.
Although this was a smaller study, in the end, the reduction in depressive symptoms was significant for one single session of infrared treatment, which has significantly fewer side effects than most current antidepressant medicines. This study confirms the findings of many other clinical studies, which found that infrared sauna use improves mood and subjective well-being in people with other diseases, such as fibromyalgia and chronic pain. Also, the careful study design made it groundbreaking enough to be published in JAMA psychiatry.
In addition, Dr. Mark Hyman has written about infrared saunas and the proven benefits in reducing the stress response and creating balance in the autonomic nervous system. He has said infrared saunas improve circulation, help with weight loss, balance blood sugar, and improve detoxification—each of which improves brain function.
In fact, he writes that one study has also shown that infrared saunas can actually improve the function of neurons that have been damaged by toxins. This is to say nothing of the relaxing effects of sauna, the improvement sauna has on autonomic nervous function, or the overall increased sense of peace and well-being experienced with frequent sauna sessions.
Read more from Dr. Hyman in his book, The Ultramind Solution: The Simple Way to Defeat Depression, Overcome Anxiety, and Sharpen Your Mind.
Benefits of Sleep on Mental Health
Reports abound that due to the anxiety surrounding COVID-19, many people are having difficulties sleeping. But sleep is an absolute necessity to help you stay healthy, improve your immune system and maintain your mental health.
According to the American Sleep Association, if you do not get enough sleep, it lowers your immune system. When you sleep, your immune system releases cytokines. Some cytokines play a role in how your immune system functions. According to research in the peer-reviewed journal Brain, Behaviour and Immunity, lack of sleep may alter cytokines and affect the immune system response.
The exact amount of sleep a person needs to boost their immune system may vary. But according to the Mayo Clinic, most adults need seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night. Teens and school-age children need about 10 hours.
There is also evidence that relaxing in gentle heat, like in an infrared sauna, can be part of a great bedtime routine which improves sleep quality by promoting relaxation, healthy circadian rhythm and sleep drive.
Unmanaged, chaotic, toxic thoughts will also create chaotic and toxic energy in the brain, which can keep us awake at night, causing brain damage and mental health issues. It’s important to deal with these thoughts through mindful and meditative practices before going to sleep, and a sauna is a great place to do this.
Exercise Improves Mental Health
Exercise is a great way to improve your mental health anytime, but especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most people are adhering to stay-at-home orders, working from home and teaching their children at home. Many find it very restricting and stressful, but with safe social distancing, it’s still a good time to continue exercising, inside or outside.
According to an article in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.
Regular exercise may help ease depression and anxiety by:
- Releasing feel-good endorphins, natural cannabis-like brain chemicals (endogenous cannabinoids) and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being.
- Taking your mind off worries so you can get away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety.
Doing 30 minutes or more of exercise a day for three to five days a week may significantly improve depression or anxiety symptoms. But smaller amounts of physical activity, as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time, may make a difference. It may take less time exercising to improve your mood when you do more-vigorous activities, such as running or bicycling.
The mental health benefits of exercise and physical activity may last only if you stick with it over the long term, another good reason to focus on finding activities that you enjoy. (If you are not already participating in a regular exercise program, be sure to check with your physician before starting one.)
One of the health benefits of saunas, according to Dr. Rhonda Patrick, a biomedical scientist, is the fact that the heat acclimation – whether from exercise or sauna use – increases blood flow to muscles, the heart and skin, all of which can lead to positive effects, including gains in endurance and muscle mass.
Betty Rocker, a certified exercise coach, a nationally certified structural integration practitioner (realignment of the body through manual therapy), and an ISSA (International Sports Sciences Association) certified fitness nutrition practitioner, offers an online home workout studio featuring Daily Home Workout Challenges.
Balancing the Gut Microbiome
The microbiome-gut-brain axis refers to how our gut bacteria, our gut, and our brain constantly influence the health and functions of each other. People with mental health problems suffer from gut dysbiosis, and these people are a lot more likely to have digestive issues such as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) than others. The microbiome can influence inflammation levels, vagus nerve function, neuronal health and neurotransmitter levels. In many cases, interventions that improve the gut microbiome often improve mental health8, although scientists are still working to understand how the bacteria impacts mental health.
Probiotics are a great tool to help with digestive health. Amy Myers, MD recommends her 14-strain probiotic which supports digestive and immune health, as well as serotonin production in the gut thereby supporting a healthy mood.
Bacteria have the same origins as the mitochondria, so lights that activate the mitochondria may also stimulate the bacteria. Indeed, both near- and far-infrared influence gut bacteria by improving the growth of healthy species and inhibiting the bad ones, both in mice and humans. In addition, in mice, far-infrared improves the gut’s ability to detect beneficial bacteria metabolites, such as short-chain fatty acids, which also improve mood and brain function.
The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting unique stresses to daily life. Stay-at-home orders, fear of the virus, and insecurity regarding supplies and the economy mean anxiety levels are at all-time highs.
Infrared therapy has now been shown to help with depression in a study. This is possibly due to gentle radiant heat on the skin coupled with increased core body temperature. In addition, infrared not only helps you relax and boosts your mood but also holistically addresses many other root causes of mental health issues.
Infrared saunas produce maximum relaxation with infrared panels that increase core body temperature without uncomfortable heat. The benefits of the sauna on sleep, athletic performance, and the body’s microbiome add to its therapeutic benefits for mind and body at this stressful time.