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Crikey Clarifier

Jul 2, 2010

Can sneezing really help treat depression?

MP Andrew Robb said he'd look at the sun to make himself sneeze to release endorphins and help his depression. But does looking at the sun make you sneeze, and more importantly, does it change your mood?

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MP Andrew Robb writes in Crikey today about his own personal battle with depression. One quote in particular caught our eye:

I employed various bizarre techniques to try and get myself going. For example, when driving to work, I’d stop a few times, stare at the sun to make myself sneeze, as this would release endorphins and give me a lift.

There are two big questions to examine here: does looking at the sun make you sneeze, and more importantly, does sneezing help depression?

Crikey consulted various medical experts and the results are nothing to sniff at:

Can staring at the sun really make you run for the tissues?

Yes, in fact the condition even has a name: photic sneeze reflex. It was first noted by Aristotle, according to The Scientific American. And it’s not just looking at the sun that makes people sneeze, looking at other types of bright light can have the same affect.

Can everyone look at the sun and make themselves sneeze?

This particular phenomenon applies to only a select few. Photic sneeze reflex is a genetic quirk that affects only 10-35% of the population. It’s also more common in males than females, and most common with white people.

Is it bad for you?

Apparently you should be concerned if you’re a combat pilot or perform any other high risk occupation. MPs should be safe, but if you’re worried, antihistamines can help cure the problem, suggests Professor Jonathan Crowston, director of the Centre for Eye Research Australia.

How does photic sneeze reflex work?

There are a few different theories. One is that it is a congenital malfunction in nerve signals in the trigeminal nerve nucleus, the area responsible for sneezes. When the optic nerve gets overstimulated (i.e. by looking at bright light), the trigeminal nerve is triggered and you sneeze.

“What this means,” says Konrad Pesudovs, foundation chair of Optometry and Vision Science at Flinders University, “is that you have two nerves very close to another, like two electric wires, but the insulation is imperfect, so when you have a massive current in one nerve some of it ‘jumps’ to the adjacent nerve and an erroneous signal starts, which ends up triggering a sneeze.”

Another theory involves the sunlight causing eyes to water, with the resulting moisture then seeping into the nose, producing a sneeze.

“The reason we don’t really know the answer is that the photic sneeze reflex is a curiosity rather than a serious disease and we tend to focus our research resources into more serious problems. Perhaps mental health is one of these!” notes Pesudovs.

Well, if we’re focusing on mental health, let’s look at the benefits of sneezing for depression suffers. Are there any?

“It’s an interesting observation but there are no reports and I’ve never heard of sneezing helping depression,” Scientia Professor Philip Mitchell, head of the School of Psychiatry at the University of New South Wales told Crikey. He’s also a consultant psychiatrist at the Black Dog Institute.

“It’s unusual. The aspect of it that makes sense is that we know that sometimes bright light can help with depression. Whether that was one aspect of helping him, but the sneezing, there are no reports of it.”

But don’t the endorphins help?

“There’s an interest in endorphins and depression, but it’s more speculative than well rounded science,” says Mitchell.

So it was the sunshine that helped, not the sneezing?

“The only possible explanation I can come up with to help the depression is the bright light, particularly in the morning and in the evening. Bright light particularly helps with seasonal affective disorder, which is a form of depression which tends to come on in winter months. There’s good scientific literature around bright light exposure for depression,” says Mitchell.

In short, sneezing may not be the answer if you’re struggling to cope. But stopping to soak up the sunshine or even standing under a bright lamp of an evening may be one way to deal with dark days.

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14 comments

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14 thoughts on “Can sneezing really help treat depression?

  1. MIKESTUCHBERY

    As someone who has suffered the triple maladies of depression, occasional sensitivity to sunlight and outrageously explosive hayfever, I can categorically state that all the sneezing in the world won’t banish the black dog.

    A couple of hours in the sun, however, does a world of wonder.

  2. jchercelf

    Is that what was wrong with y our vision Andrew ??

    JC

  3. phillip.hatton

    And the entire medical profession (inc psych) have been missing sneezing as a treatment for years. How unique – one has to question the motive behind a launch of $, Robbs disclosure. Cynical me insulted by a partie using a debilitating disease(s) for political points.

  4. Little Eric

    @jchercelf – I don’t like Robb’s politics either, but snide comments in this context highlight how difficult it is for people – men particularly – to “come out” about having depression.
    Your (unfortunately common) attitude is one of the reasons people don’t seek help for depression.

    As for sneezing and depression – many sufferers have their own little triggers and strategies to relieve it.
    Churchill’s were bricklaying and painting bad watercolours (and brandy).
    If it works, use it – and bugger the science.
    After all, antidepressants have been shown in many studies to be barely better than placebo.

  5. Meski

    WHat about pepper/irritant induced sneezing? Does that work? Or if it’s endorphins, eat some chillies. That triggers endorphins. Chillies are good for you anyway.

  6. David

    Is someone taking the mickey here …ah ah ah ah ahhhhhhhhhchoo

  7. Ian Sale

    One of my professors once remarked that all human pleasures derive from the filling and emptying of hollow organs lined with smooth muscle. Sneezing’s a new one though.

  8. Sean

    Ian Sale
    Posted Saturday, 3 July 2010 at 7:31 pm | Permalink
    One of my professors once remarked that all human pleasures derive from the filling and emptying of hollow organs lined with smooth muscle. Sneezing’s a new one though.

    OK, so how about appreciation of music or literature? Further, I don’t get much pleasure from breathing or micturition, so it doesn’t work in reverse. I might be off for a well-advised second opinion…

  9. Kevin

    I am not trying to make a joke about a serious condition (depression) but would staring at the sun cause serious damage to your eyes?

  10. David McRae

    Don’t know anything about the black dog – but I’ve had the sun-sneeze for ages, not that it worries me at all. In fact sometimes it was a beauty – as a young lad in the Navy it got me out of many parades during summer as looking at sun or reflected light of white uniforms made me sneeze every few minutes. I had no excuse in winter rigs. White walls or bright lights would also do the trick. To induce a sneeze I don’t have to look at the sun, close eyes and point face into the sun will do it, so for me staring or even just looking at the sun is not required.

  11. anthony.ellis@hp.com

    I’m so happy to have a name for this now… maybe people will stop laughing at me now when I say that the sun makes me sneeze.

  12. EnergyPedant

    Agreed Anthony. Every time I move out into the bright sun I sneeze in a most emphatic fashion. My wife thinks it is incredibly amusing, particularly when my voice goes croaky for the next few seconds and I sound a bit emotional.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had the effect from bright lights though, I’ve always found it to be related to the sun.

    It’s possible that the positive effect is a placebo. Someone told him sneezing would release endorphins and make him feel better and so it works to some extent.

  13. powerisnotstrength

    LITTLE ERIC at 3:33 pm has got it right. If it worked for Sen Robb, it worked for Sen Robb. He says it gave him a lift, why wouldn’t you take that at face value?

    There’s a broader lesson here, about individuals sometimes being the best judge of what helps them. Even when experts think they know better.

  14. powerisnotstrength

    Correction, I mean Mr Robb, not Senator.

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