It's not just in your head: A change in weather can, in fact, affect your mind and body. Each season comes with its own set of challenges—fewer hours of daylight, and changes in air pressure, humidity, and temperature, to name a few. But weather changes even cause imbalances in brain chemicals that can trigger migraines, and it's been reported that about seven percent of Americans experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in the fall and winter months. We asked experts to explain the most common ways the weather affects health, and how to stay healthy and safe throughout every month of the year.
1. How Weather Affects Your Mood
With less sunlight in fall and winter, you may experience a seasonal slump. "Light is one of the most important factors in mood," says Patricia Farrell, Ph.D., a psychologist in Tenafly, NJ. Fewer hours of sunlight can disrupt your internal clock and cause a blue mood that’s a symptom of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Being in bright light first thing in the morning can almost substitute for sunlight, says Nitun Verma, M.D., with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Install the highest wattage lightbulbs possible in your bathroom. Try GE Lighting Reveal HD LED 9-watt (60-watt Replacement), $5.97 for a 2-pack, Amazon. Regular exercise (15 minutes of brisk walking) helps because it releases endorphins that keep your mood on an even keel.
A growing body of research also shows that you can combat stress, anxiety, and depression by spending time in nature. If you can’t make it to your local park or hiking trail, Farrell recommends exercising your green thumb with houseplants, which can have the same soothing effect.
2. Your Heart
Extreme temperatures can put a strain on the heart, which can raise the risk of a heart attack or stroke in people who already have atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque, cholesterol, and/or fats on the artery walls. Cold temps cause blood vessels to constrict, making the heart work harder to circulate blood.
On very cold or hot days, avoid overexertion. Don’t shovel heavy snow, for instance, or do strenuous yard work, especially if you’re not exercising regularly, says Jennifer Haythe, M.D., codirector of the Columbia Women’s Heart Center at Columbia University Medical Center. Also prevent overheating by avoiding direct sun during the hottest hours of the day (noon to 3 p.m.).
3. Seasonal Allergies
Weather influences the severity of allergy season because symptoms are mainly caused by pollen and mold (indoor and outdoor), which are impacted by temperature and moisture. For instance, a warmer-than-usual winter makes trees pollinate sooner, causing symptoms to show up earlier and last longer; hot spells in spring can result in more intense periods of pollen released; and an early snow melt or wetter spring can intensify mold, says Kenneth Mendez, president and CEO of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Rain can be a blessing or a bother for seasonal allergy sufferers, depending on when it happens. A wet spring promotes rapid plant growth, which can cause allergy symptoms to come on quickly and intensely. But rain can also temporarily ease itchy eyes and a runny nose by washing away airborne pollen—from trees in the spring, grass in the summer, and weeds in the fall. Dry and windy weather can cause an uptick in symptoms; wind spreads pollen and mold.
Know when pollen and mold season peaks in your area and avoid extended outdoor activities during those times. Keep doors and windows closed and know that pollen levels are usually highest before 10 a.m.
If you regularly have allergy symptoms, see an allergist. Research shows allergy shots reduce symptoms in about 85 percent of people with hay fever—the itchy nose and eyes and inflammation caused by pollen.
4. Skin Conditions
Winter is often the season of skin’s discontent. “The dry outdoor air and indoor heat cause the skin to lose moisture and become red, dry, and itchy,” says dermatologist David Bank, M.D. Many common skin conditions can be exacerbated, including rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis. On the other end of the spectrum, hot temps and sun can also aggravate these conditions (and skin in general) by dilating blood vessels and increasing blood flow to the skin.
Hydrate, moisturize, and protect. Pat moisturizer onto damp skin right after you shower to seal in moisture. If you’re in a dry climate or during seasons with low humidity, consider using a humidifier. When you’re outdoors, wear sunscreen (even in winter), and if it’s windy, protect your face with a scarf to prevent chafing.
5. Aches and Pains
When people say “I can feel the storm coming in my bones,” there is some truth to it. A fall in barometric pressure may cause the shock-absorbing parts of your joints to become overly extended and achy or painful, says Vinicius Domingues, M.D., a rheumatologist in Daytona Beach, FL. “It’s more common for people to have swelling then, too.” Chilly weather also can tighten muscles.
Staying warm is crucial. Heat boosts blood flow, stimulates skin receptors that improve pain tolerance, and relaxes muscles. Keeping up with an exercise routine wards off symptoms, too. Inactive joints and muscles can get stiff and painful. Yoga has been shown to improve chronic back and neck pain as well as discomfort from rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
Extreme weather—high heat and humidity, dry wind, rain, and bitterly cold air—can trigger an asthma attack, Mendez says. Asthma is an inflammation of the airways, and extreme weather changes the type of air you’re breathing, which can irritate the airways. Very humid air, for example, is heavier and harder to breathe. Cold, dry air dehydrates the bronchial tubes (part of your airways), causing them to narrow and restrict airflow. Airborne allergens (pollen, mold) can also cause an asthma flare-up.
People with asthma should keep an eye on the forecast and limit outdoor activity when triggers are strongest. To track air quality in your area, get the Environmental Protection Agency’s EPA free AirNow app, available for Apple and Android users.
7. Headaches and Migraines
A fall in barometric pressure, which happens before a front or storm moves in, is such a strong predictor of a migraine attack in some people that they’re referred to as migraine meteorologists. In one study nearly two-thirds of people with migraines had attacks when the barometric pressure dropped, possibly due to an effect on pressure-sensitive receptors in the brain. Both wind and sunlight (even brief 5- to 10-minute exposure to direct, bright sunlight) have also been shown to trigger migraines.
Dehydration caused by high heat and humidity can be another trigger for migraines and headaches in general because dehydration may play a role in the overall inflammatory process, says Noah Rosen, M.D., director of the headache center at Northwell Neuroscience Institute in Great Neck, NY.
If you know a storm is on the way, taking a long-acting pain reliever like naproxen (Aleve) or prescription pain medication may help avoid a migraine. Because weather is only one trigger, limiting exposure to other triggers (caffeine, alcohol, the food additive MSG) can prevent or lessen an attack caused by a drop in barometric pressure. No matter what the season, wear sunglasses and stay hydrated. Eating fruits and vegetables that are more than 90 percent water, like watermelon and cucumbers, can also help.
New seasons can be exciting (fall foliage, anyone?), but paying attention to the changing weather and regularly checking in with your body can go a long way in helping you feel your very best all year long.