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The Influence of the Weather upon our Health

by Polly Hall(more info)

listed in environmental, originally published in issue 113 - July 2005

Introduction

Hippocrates, the renowned father of medicine, noted that 'every disease has its own nature and arises from external causes, from cold, from the sun, from changing winds'. With an advancing technological society we are robbed of the time or inclination to synchronize our bodies with the environment and, as a result, we rarely consider that the climate is having an adverse effect on us until our physical body notifies us through ill health.

If we look back only 100 years we can compare the difference in climatic changes and the way in which we, as human beings, responded to them. For example, if it was cold we would eat hot, earth-nourished food to rebalance ourselves and wear warm natural fibres to insulate our bodies. Nature gave us the foods of the seasons that we needed to survive.

Today we can buy almost any fruit or vegetable from a supermarket at any time of year and just crank up the central heating if we feel cold. We have lost touch with the signs and remedies that nature is providing us. Man and weather are no longer in tune, and our respect for its power has blurred with increased man-made security and protection, but at what cost?

Weather still plays a huge part in our environment, and still continues to affect our health. If we explore from a historical perspective, we discover that symbolically, weather is deified in many cultures. For example, in mythology we are reminded of Aeolus – Greek god of the winds, Apollo – Roman and Greek god of the sun and Nut – Egyptian god of the sky (Graves, 1993). The reverence for these powerful gods was so great that ancient stories tell of punishment by some unseen force via the mediums of flood, drought, hail, thunderstorms or even wind blowing plagues of locusts (Alexander et al, 1988). The relationship between man and weather continues to be an evolving one and our reaction to the external environment is dependent on a number of factors, including our age, lifestyle, gender and location.

Biometeorology

Biometeorology is formed from the Greek word bios meaning life, and meteoros meaning the study of phenomena up above. It emerged as a science in the 1940s and investigates the interactions between atmospheric processes and living organisms.

A study demonstrating these interactions and thus launching biometeorology was conducted by Otto Hollich, a student based at the University of Hamburg in 1945. He recorded daily weather patterns for five years and collated them with those of Claus Thurkow, who recorded the onset, degree and duration of his pain, following the loss of his arm in World War Two. When analysed the results showed that Claus's pain started when humidity rose and pressure fell, i.e. a storm was approaching, and the pain did not subside until the storm had passed, pressures rose and humidity fell. Biometeorologists today are interested in 'the process-response system of energy and matter flows within the biosphere' (International Society of Biometeorology, 2003). The aims of the International Society of Biometeorology are to study the effects of atmospheric variation upon ecological, biological, environmental and economic systems.

Extremes of Temperature

We all know how uncomfortable and distressing it can be on a hot day when we are unable to cool down. We rarely consider our body's complex homeostatic mechanisms that are working to maintain a constant body temperature, and yet they are so important for correct functioning in our changing environment. The usual temperature of the human body is 98.4°F or 37°C and is controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain (Minett et al, 1998).

When we are within an environment that is hotter than our body's natural state, we automatically instigate coping strategies to regulate our temperature, such as dilating blood vessels to enable heat loss on the skin's surface, and sweating to produce moisture, thereby using up heat as it evaporates on the skin. However, in humid weather these functions can be impaired as demonstrated by the heat index.

The heat index determines the temperature that your body feels, not the temperature measured by a thermometer, therefore it is the 'perceived' temperature that is important not the 'actual' temperature. Consequently it relates not only to the body's ability to cool itself but to the external environment. The effects of hot weather on the human body may result in heat exhaustion, skin problems, fainting and dehydration.

These uncomfortable effects of hot weather can be fatal, claiming more lives than cold weather (National Office for Statistics, 2003). During August 2003 when temperatures soared above 30°C, the National Office for Statistics reported over 2,000 more deaths (UK) than average in a week. During the same month in Europe, the National Institute for Health and Medical Research reported that over 21,000 lives were lost as a result of the extreme heatwave, with over 15,000 of those people dying in France.

Cold weather can also adversely affect our bodies if we are not able to cope with its effects. Changeable weather can lower the body's resistance to infection, and increases in cold and flu symptoms, frostbite and hypothermia occur during the winter months. The physiological effects when we are cold lead to blood vessels constricting to prevent heat loss, reduction in the rate of sweat production and muscle movement through shivering to generate more heat. Mortality rates rise during the hot summers as well as the cold winters and the extremes of temperature can take their toll if we are unprepared or unaware of our bodily needs.

Ultraviolet Light

We cannot function correctly without sunlight; it is needed so our skin can synthesize essential Vitamin D. When we are exposed to sunlight, our skin produces melanin to absorb the light energy and act as a barrier to the radiation. Yet there is growing concern over the negative effects of being in direct sunlight through activities such as sunbathing. Major awareness campaigns are often launched during the summer months to educate people on the detrimental effects of staying in the sun for extended periods of time.

It has been documented by the medical profession that ultraviolet light can damage human tissue if exposed and cause long-term damage to the collagen in the skin making it appear wrinkled. More serious side-effects of exposure to ultraviolet light are that of fatal skin cancers. Cancer Research UK recorded that approximately 6,000 people per year are being diagnosed with the fatal skin cancer, malignant melanoma. Excessive exposure to sunlight can also harm the eyes, impairing vision if the thin layer of outer tissues is damaged.

Atmospheric Pressure

When we consider that the human body constitutes about 60-70% fluid and we know that pressure affects liquids, it is clear that changes in atmospheric pressure do have an effect on our wellbeing.

This effect has been demonstrated by the American Labour and Birth Index. D'Aleo (2002) states, "birth follows often near the passage of the lowest pressure or associated fronts". He also noted that when atmospheric pressure fell there was an increase in the admission of pregnant women to hospital. His observations suggested that due to the large amount of fluid in the womb, the expansion and contraction caused by atmospheric pressure changes was thought to induce the labour of those women reaching the end of their pregnancy.

The human brain is also subject to the effect of changes in atmospheric pressure. If we consider the amount of fluid circulating in the brain it is often noted that people comment they can detect a change in the weather by an uncomfortable headache or pressure on the head. A study by Cull (1981) reported fewer attacks by migraine sufferers when barometric pressure was low.

Link between Weather and Health

The link between weather conditions and health issues will always be a complex one due to the changeable state of the human being and of the external environment. People with ongoing medical conditions can often detect a change in their symptoms correlating to a change in the weather patterns.

A study on 'the influence of heat and cold on the pain threshold in rheumatoid arthritis' (Curkovic B et al, 1993) concluded that heat and cold therapeutic methods remarkably raised the pain threshold right after application. This suggests that using temperature as a therapeutic tool can improve symptoms momentarily. The cold, damp weather and falling barometric pressure can escalate the effects felt by arthritis and rheumatism sufferers. The sensitive joints expand when air pressure drops which causes more resistance to movement and thus increased pain.

Respiratory disorders, such as influenza, increase during the colder months rather than the warm weather. Sudden changes in air temperature and pressure can affect those with conditions such as emphysema, asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia.

Polluted and stagnant air prevalent in hot weather may aggravate the symptoms of asthma sufferers. Many people suffer from seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever), during the summer months. An estimated 15 million people suffer from an allergy in the UK (The British Allergy Foundation) with over half having hay fever.

Weather during the summer is predominantly dry with higher levels of sunshine. This pattern, combined with the natural prevalence of pollinating flowers, trees and air-borne fungus spores, can cause distressing symptoms in allergy sufferers, such as difficulty breathing, watery sore eyes and blocked noses. Weather reports today often include a pollen index to forecast the levels of pollen in localized areas, giving allergy sufferers the good or bad news, dependent on what is to come.

Weather and Mood

How many times have you heard the expression 'I'm feeling under the weather', or 'I'm on top of the world', or 'I'm on cloud nine'? We use these phrases to describe metaphorically how we feel. We also integrate them into our language to reflect our affinity with climatic occurrences. For example, we may act like 'greased lightning' or be in a 'stormy relationship'. Poets and philosophers use the weather to describe their emotions, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" wrote Shakespeare, and Dylan Thomas' On a Wedding Anniversary demonstrates beautifully how we cannot separate our feelings from our natural environment.

Our expectations of how the weather will be can also have an effect on our mood; for example, if we are planning an outside event and the forecast is rain, our hopes are often shattered. This relates to cause and effect rather than environmental changes affecting our physiology; however, perceptions of weather can have a marked effect on a person's psychological wellbeing. Often this is not on a conscious level, but by observing our own behaviour patterns we can see the correlation between weather patterns and our moods. We generally feel uplifted when fine weather follows a spell of drab, rainy days. In contrast we may become depressed and miserable with the onset of cold, stormy or wet weather. The expression 'an ill wind blows no good' refers perhaps to the symptoms experienced during rapidly changing climate bought about by winds. Electrically charged air and changes in temperature can all contribute to changes in our wellbeing, resulting in headaches, nausea, insomnia and mood imbalances.

Many people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) yet may not categorize it as a valid condition. With onset normally during the winter months when days are shorter, sufferers report feeling down, having low energy, sleeping more hours than usual and changes in mood. This does not normally occur during the longer summer days when people are exposed to more hours of daylight, and are generally more active because of the warmer climate. Light and mood can be linked, considering that light suppresses the hormone melatonin. It is due to a biochemical imbalance that results in mood changes with the change in seasons.

Studies in Canada (Met Office Health features, 2002) have found that it is the length of the day, rather than the amount of sunlight, that is the contributing factor, and this correlates with SAD patients who do not become clinically depressed in bad weather during the summer, and do not experience normal mood patterns in good weather during the winter.

It is no surprise then that suicide rates increase during the winter months, suggesting the negative impact that colder, darker days can have on our wellbeing. With an estimated 70% of suicide victims being clinically depressed (Mind 2001), research conducted by the leading mental health charity in England and Wales showed that the winter months have a big impact on the nation's mental health. Our mental faculties are affected by our bodily comfort, as demonstrated by Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If our body is not nourished and our needs not met then other aspects of the self cannot be fulfilled. Mental function is impaired when we are preoccupied with the prevailing discomfort. If we do not adapt to changes in the climate then we cannot expect to be fully in tune with ourselves, as both are not mutually exclusive. We all too often dress inappropriately for the prevailing weather or ignore the warning signs our bodies give us to slow down or cool down, warm up or rest.

In Touch with Nature

It is all too easy to suggest that we must hibernate in winter, get up when the sun rises, go to sleep when the sun sets. This is virtually impossible in our fast-paced, consumer-led society. Nevertheless, if you are lucky enough not to have to work and have time and resources to spare, there is nothing to stop you doing this; it is after all what nature teaches us to do. If we follow the example of the tortoise maybe we could all live over 100 years!

However, man is a social animal and as such is interactive with his environment. Therefore, it is important that weather and climate be considered a crucial part of a person's wellbeing.

Complementary therapies such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, hydrotherapy, homeopathy and reflexology all look at the individual from a wider perspective rather than just a bunch of symptoms. Key aspects to these treatments are the understanding of how external influences such as diet, lifestyle, emotions and relationships can have on that person. I wonder how often therapists consider the weather as having an effect on their clients. Climatic conditions continue to change, we as humans continue to change and it is this understanding of the cause and effect that can lead to greater wellbeing. If we are balanced and healthy we are ready to face the world whatever the weather.

Bibliography

Alexander et al. The Lion Handbook to the Bible. Lion Publishing. Herts. ISBN 0-85648-320-6. 1988.
Arthritis Research Campaign website: www.arc.org.uk
British Allergy Foundation website: Stolen Lives The Allergy Report www.allergyfoundation.com/stolenlives.html (Allergy UK)
Cancer Research UK website: www.cancerresearchuk.org
Cull RE. Barometric pressure and other factors in migraine. Headache. 21(3): 102-104. 1981.
Curkovic B et al. The influence of heat and cold on the pain threshold in rheumatoid arthritis. Z Rheumatol. Vol. 52. Iss.5. 1993.
Daleo J. Website: www.intellicast.com. 2002.
Graves R. Greek Myths. Penguin Books Ltd. London. ISBN 0140171991. 1993.
International Society of Biometeorology website: www.biometeorology.org
Met Office Health features website: www.metoffice.gov.uk/health
Mind website www.mind.org.uk
Minett P, Wayne D and Rubenstein D. Human Form and Function. Collins Educational. London. ISBN 0-00-322303-5. 1998.
National Office for Statistics website: www.statistics.gov.uk
The National Institute for Health and Medical Research website: www.nimr.mrc.ac.uk
SAD Association website: www.sada.org.uk/sadassociation.htm
Youngson R. The Royal Society of Medicine Health Encyclopaedia. Bloomsbury. London. ISBN 0747550506. 2000.

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About Polly Hall

Polly Hall, BA (Hons), MAR, is a qualified reflexologist and member of the Association of Reflexologists. A holistic, intuitive approach is reflected in her interest in the mind/body/emotion link and how these interrelate for optimum health and well-being. Polly runs a private reflexology practice in Somerset and can be contacted on Tel: 01278 723462; pollyfeet@yahoo.co.uk

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