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Health in a Hot Tub

Brett Ely performs an ultrasound
Brett Ely's research involves a relaxing treatment (not pictured) for a serious medical condition.

Excess body hair. Cardiovascular disease. Diabetes. Obesity. Sleep apnea. Infertility. Imagine if any or all of these could be treated, or even in some cases prevented, by a soak in a hot tub.

According to the initial results of research conducted by PhD candidate Brett Ely, if those conditions are caused by polycystic ovary syndrome, a hot tub may actually be the ideal complement to the treatment table.

Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, affects approximately 15 percent of all women of childbearing age—close to 10 million women worldwide. The exact cause of PCOS, a reproductive hormonal imbalance that leads to cysts in ovaries, is unknown and there is currently no cure. Symptoms include acne, excess body hair, and abnormal menstrual cycles, and the condition can lead to obesity and infertility.

Ely’s interest in the inner workings of the human body trace back to her years as an elite athlete. She ran collegiately at James Madison University, and following a six-year stint conducting thermal physiology research for the Department of Defense, moved to Eugene to work on her PhD at the University of Oregon and run for Team Run Eugene. After competing in the 2016 US Olympic marathon team trials—her fourth Olympic marathon trials—Ely put her racing career on hold to focus more fully on her studies in Chris Minson’s lab in the Department of Human Physiology.

Ely training for the 2016 Olympic marathon trials 


The recipient of a two-year predoctoral fellowship from the American Heart Association and the Eugene and Clarissa Evonuk Memorial Graduate Fellowship from the UO, Ely and her research could help millions of women worldwide, whether they are matching her stride-for-stride or taking their first steps toward a healthier life.

“You can do a lot of good by working on clinical populations and trying to change population health,” she said. “More than changing an athlete’s performance. They’re both fascinating to me, but I feel good about the work I’m doing and the impact that it can have on peoples’ lives.”

Ely recruits study participants through a number of channels, including ads in the Register-Guard, postings on Craigslist, referrals from local physicians, and word of mouth on campus. After an initial introductory phone call, potential participants come to the lab to see the equipment and familiarize themselves with the process before committing.

“That’s important; one, because that’s a good consent process, and two, because it’s a large time commitment and I want someone to think that through,” said Ely.

Once a person is approved to become part of the study, they head to the hot tub—frequently. The study doesn’t involve one relaxing soak; rather, it involves repeated visits over an extended period of time. Three to four times each week, over an eight-week period, participants submerge themselves in a tub in the thermoneutral room.

“I said, ‘I’ll sit in a hot tub and get paid for it,’” said Sam Bryan, class of 2017, of the day she heard about the study. Bryan was originally a participant, but enjoyed getting healthier by sitting in a hot tub and watching Netflix so much she is now a research assistant helping Ely in the lab. “I really liked being a subject, I liked the people I was interacting with and I found the research super interesting, so I was lucky enough to come on board and it’s totally changed my career path.”

At the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the eight weeks, blood pressure, blood glucose, and nerve activity are measured to see if there is a noticeable improvement in the participant’s health, and the results so far are promising. For example, Ely is seeing clinically important reductions in blood pressure and glucose; in addition, the nerves responsible for a person’s “fight or flight” reactions, which can contribute to high blood pressure and increased heart rate if they are overactive due to PCOS, are 40 percent less active by the end of the treatment.

Brett Ely preparing to check a patient's sympathetic nerve
Ely prepares to check sympathetic nerve activity.

“That nerve is much quieter, which is important in terms of vascular health,” Ely said. “Women with PCOS tend to have really irregular menstrual cycles. For about half of our subjects, that went away during the study. There are some other symptoms related to high levels of testosterone, and some women reported their skin was clearer. These results are preliminary, but so far it looks pretty promising in terms of what we’re seeing with blood pressure and what we’re seeing with metabolic health, and there’s even some evidence that we could be improving some of the other symptoms of PCOS.”

The benefits of Ely’s research are potentially wide-ranging. In addition to clearing up acne and making it easier for women to conceive, by increasing blood flow during the treatments she could help people who are inactive—even for medical reasons—become more active.

“The way I would envision it working in a broader population is basically in addition to exercise or as a transition to exercise,” she said. “People with a high body mass index might be more likely to have knee injuries or other physical limitations, or they might just have a really low exercise tolerance where they’re supposed to exercise for an hour for health benefits but they can only go for 10 minutes until they’re uncomfortable. But, if we can take them and have them do that ten minutes of exercise and then sit in the hot tub for the other 50, and the next week try 20 [minutes of exercise], it might be something that could ease that transition to exercise.”

- Damian Foley, UO communications

Brett Ely is on course to earn her PhD in December 2017, but is still accepting participants through the summer. If you would like to be a participant in the study, e-mail minsonlab@gmail.com.

Photo of Ely training for the 2016 US Olympic Team Trials—Marathon courtesy Ian Dobson.