More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Moody, achy, frizzy: What's happening outside affects us on the inside
October 12, 2004
By Lisa Ryckman, Rocky Mountain News

Seattle residents suffer from acute rain denial.

When it rains, they walk around and get wet. Oh yes, they carry umbrellas - they just refuse to open them. That would mean acknowledging that it rains in Seattle, and as any Seattlite can tell you - and will, repeatedly - it rains more in New York than it does in Seattle.

Technically, this might be true. But as someone who lived in Seattle for two years and then moved to New York, I know for a fact that New York has something Seattle doesn't: sun.

And sun, as every Coloradan knows, is everything. But when it comes to your health, both mental and physical, it's not the only thing.

Feeling under the weather? Shifts in temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and winds can affect migraines, asthma, arthritis, depression, vertigo and respiratory problems.

Weather-sensitive people - you know who you are - can be like human barometers, capable of predicting the weather by the aches in their bones or the black clouds hanging over their heads.

If you feel it in your joints, it's not all in your mind.

"A cold front moves through and there's a shift in pressure and pressure on your joints, so your arthritis pain goes up or down," says Scott Greene, a professor of biometeorology at the University of Oklahoma. "It's not just people saying, 'My knee popped, it's going to rain tomorrow.' "

I grew up in Indiana, which Greene acknowledges has some of the world's worst weather: 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity in the summer, tons of tornadoes in the spring, blizzards and sub-zero temperatures all winter long. Indianapolis residents suffer from acute snow denial: During my 25 years there, every snowfall came as a big surprise that instantly paralyzed the city.

Despite that, I never realized how weather sensitive I was until I moved to Seattle, which is as gray as it is green.

In the Emerald City, it snizzles, which is drizzle that feels like someone sneezing in your face. In the winter, the sun comes up around 10 a.m. - you know because it goes from dark gray to medium gray outside - and it's dark again by 3:30 p.m. By February, I was ready to gnaw my arm off. Instead, I went to Mexico for two weeks.

And it's not just the winter: One year, the sun didn't shine for the entire month of June.

Defining SAD
Do I have seasonal affective disorder, appropriately known as SAD?

Oh yeah. Overeating, oversleeping, cravings for mass quantities of chocolate and an intense desire to curl up in a fetal position under the bed and never come out - that was me. Me and 15 million other people.

A year before I experienced my own raging SAD, psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal was busy defining it. Rosenthal was the first to recognize SAD as a syndrome and treat it with light therapy.

People with SAD get sad when they're deprived of daylight, so it kicks in as the days get shorter, peaking in January and February. It's estimated that 6 percent of the population suffers from winter depression, and as many as 20 percent might have a milder form. Though it's more common the farther north you go, people can suffer from SAD in even bright climes.

SAD is associated with decreased serotonin - one of those crucial feel-good brain chemicals. It's also associated with increased production of melatonin, which makes you want to snooze.

A less common type of SAD, known as summer depression, usually begins in the late spring or early summer. Doctors speculate that the culprit is too much heat, which some people find intolerable, and too much daylight, which kicks up adrenaline production and reduces melatonin, resulting in irritability and difficulty sleeping.

"It causes a very severe and agitated depression," Rosenthal says.

Greene says SAD can be influenced by weather extremes or by extreme weather monotony.

"So where do you go when you want to lift your spirits? You go to either the opposite of what you're currently experiencing, like somebody from Chicago going to Hawaii in the winter, or to where it's relatively constant, like San Diego or Orlando," says Greene. He mentions a friend who moved from San Diego to New Hampshire because he was fed up with endless, sunny, 74-degree days.

"That's related to the burn-out factor," Greene says. "The psychology of monotony - it's seasonal."

SAD is more common in young adults and women, and it might also hit creative people more often. A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that poet Emily Dickinson - who wrote poems that begin with lines like "I'm Nobody! Who Are You?" and "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" - suffered from SAD because she produced three times as many poems in the summers of 1858 and 1859 as she did in the falls and winters.

The winter poems were gloomier, too:
  • "There's a certain Slant of light,
    Winter Afternoons,
    That oppresses, like the Heft
    Of Cathedral Tunes" [/list:u] "Perhaps her sensitivity to the seasons was the same sensitivity that allowed her to write so beautifully," says study author John McDermott, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Hawaii.

    Lucky for the literary world that Emily Dickinson spent her life holed up in Amherst, Mass., instead of frolicking on an Oahu beach.

    Light a short-term fix
    People with SAD have trouble finishing tasks and remembering where they put things. Researchers have found that the most common SAD cure, light therapy, doesn't work when it comes to improving cognitive processes like memory.

    In fact, exposure to bright light to compensate for the lack of sunshine in your life is a short-term fix and works on only about half of SAD sufferers, according to a recent study in the Journal of Affective Disorders. The same study also found that cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, worked at least as well as light therapy.

    Three groups of SAD sacks underwent either light therapy, CBT or both, and all three groups improved. The CBT involved finding fun cold-weather activities and made SAD sufferers aware of triggers for weather-related depression, such as resetting clocks, autumn smells and leaves changing color. It also helped SAD sufferers pinpoint specific negative thoughts associated with a seasonal change.

    The next winter, the groups treated with CBT, either alone or with light therapy, experienced far less SAD and none of them developed full-blown cases. But SAD kicked in for more than half the light-therapy-only group.

    Sunlight isn't the only weather factor that can make a difference in the way you feel. Falling barometric pressure, the weight exerted by the air around us, is believed to trigger aches and pains in some people, as is high humidity. Other studies connect migraine headaches with cold and lack of humidity.

    Cold weather also is associated with arthritic stiffness, heart attacks and asthma as well as circulatory conditions such as Raynaud's phenomenon, which interferes with blood flow to the fingers and toes.

    Heat may trigger aggression
    And weather can have more subtle psychological effects, illustrated by the link between heat and aggression.

    In her book, Under the Weather: How the Weather and Climate Affect Our Health, Pat Thomas describes studies that examined horn-honking and temperature. In one study, drivers were delayed by a car that sat through a green light; in another, the car blocked the intersection. In both cases, the hotter the weather, the harder drivers leaned on their horns. Those without air conditioning honked the soonest and loudest.

    Another study found that major league pitchers are more likely to hit batters with the ball on hot days.

    Some researchers have found a relationship between warm weather and violent crimes as well as suicide, which actually has higher rates in the summer than in the winter.

    And moms, if you think the weather triggered the start of your labor, you might be right. A shift in barometric pressure from high to low can cause an increase in births, or so some doctors say.

    "We just had a son, and I was talking to the doctor and mentioned that a low went through today, and was that related?" Greene says. "He said that when there's less pressure, it minutely relieves the force on a woman's body, and she gives birth a little faster."

    The Web site shows a Labor/Birth Index for the United States; based on that, Oct. 5 was a highly unlikely day to be born.

    The site also has weather maps tracking mood, attentiveness, reflexes, aches and pains, respiratory distress and bad hair days. In Indiana, people have bad hair years. But if frizz is the norm, you get used to it. Changes can be tough to weather.

    Case in point: During the time I lived there, Seattle experienced a drought, defined by residents as 15 consecutive minutes without rain. The only reason to carry an umbrella was to keep the sun out of your face.

    People there hated it.

    In Denver, we're so sun-spoiled that people get crabby if it clouds over for 15 minutes. Fortunately, that hardly ever happens, because we get 300-plus days of sun - more than San Diego or Miami Beach, just ask anybody!

    I'm never leaving Denver.

    SAD Symptoms
    Seasonal Affective Disorder can hit people in the winter or the summer. Although the exact causes aren't known, winter SAD is believed to be connected to lack of light and summer SAD to hotter weather and decreased darkness.

    Winter symptoms
    • • Fatigue
      • Oversleeping
      • A heavy feeling in arms and legs
      • Carbohydrate cravings
      • Weight gain
      • Lethargy
      • Depression
      • Difficulty concentrating
      • Avoidance of social situations [/list:u] Summer symptoms
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