Category Archives: health

Weather and Your Mind

Do rainy days depress you? Does excessive heat make you angry? Do humid conditions make you feel lazy and lethargic?

Several studies and articles over the years have looked into the connections between weather and mental symptoms and states. The data, not surprisingly, shows that although there is not a definitive, rock-solid link between weather and mood there are some clear patterns that emerge.

One research paper (Baylis P, Obradovich N, Kryvasheyeu Y, Chen H, Coviello L, Moro E, et al. (2018) Weather impacts expressed sentiment. PLoS ONE 13(4): e0195750. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0195750)  published earlier this year studied the effects of inclement weather on people’s posts in social media, namely Twitter and Facebook, between 2009-2016. While the authors point out that this type of data does have limitations, including the fact that social media can distort who the subjects are and the ways they express emotions, the data from this research does indicate a lowering of overall mood during periods of cloud cover, extreme heat or cold, precipitation, and high humidity.

Other recent articles have investigated similar ideas. An interesting article on the website PsychCentral, written by John Grohol, Psy.D. (https://psychcentral.com/blog/weather-can-change-your-mood/) commented on a recent blog post that reviewed some research showing a small impact on mood from weather. Dr. Grohol cited quite a bit of contrary research, showing that weather actually does have significant affects on mood including studies which show the largest impacts on emotion come from sunshine, temperature and humidity. In fact, quite a few studies seem to show negative impacts from high heat and humidity, including an increase in lethargy, aggression and violence.

Another, more light-hearted example of weather-mood research was a study done in France from 2013 (Taylor & Francis. “Feeling flirty? Wait for the sun to shine.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 January 2013. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130128081950.htm) which studies the effects of sunshine on flirting. A 20-year old male chronicled the success or failure he had of getting the phone numbers of young women he met on sunny days versus cloudy days and found more success (22%) on sunny days vs. cloudy ones (14%).

And yet another interesting article (http://theconversation.com/here-comes-the-sun-how-the-weather-affects-our-mood-19183) cites quite a few studies and reports showing all kinds of effects on mood and behavior from weather, including higher tipping on sunny days, greater contemplation and study on cloudy days, and increased verbal aggression in the heat.

Clearly, there seems to be something to the idea that people think, react and behave differently depending on the weather they experience. Obviously, those who have recently experienced a weather catastrophe are going to be affected by that situation.  And some people have a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) where they literally go into depression during periods of low sunlight. While more research is needed, there is no reason to believe that people are not mentally affected by weather.

What can you do about this? I’ll take a look at some tips in an upcoming post.

Hurricane Lane, and Interesting Images

Hurricane in Hawaii

Hurricane Lane, while not making landfall directly on Hawaii, has certainly made a huge impact on the state with extraordinarily heavy rains and catastrophic flooding. Some areas of the island of Hawaii have received nearly 40 inches of rain, and mudslides have occurred in a number of locations. Tropical storm force winds have also affected several islands.

Although the storm’s effects have been significant, as can be seen in this story from weather.com, because the hurricane weakened as it approached Hawaii, the state was spared greater devastation and loss of life.

What’s in our air?

NASA’s Earth Observatory released pictures yesterday depicting some of what we are breathing in every day. From carbon in smoke from fires, to sea salt to dust and sand, there are many elements to our air than just air. It is a fascinating look at the different elements that arise, both naturally and unnaturally from events on the land and sea that influence the air we breathe and have impacts on health.

View the pictures at https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/92654/just-another-day-on-aerosol-earth.

Humid Pattern Continues

If you live in the Eastern half of the United States, you have certainly noticed by now that this summer has been conspicuously damp. A persistently humid pattern has stayed stubbornly rooted over the region, particularly along the coastal states. The meteorological culprit has been the presence of a blocked pattern in the atmosphere – high pressure out over the Western Atlantic Ocean ( a so-called Bermuda high, given it’s location) and low pressure over the Midwest – has caused a consistent flow of air from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean over the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and New England.

As a result of this pattern, the kind of summertime weather conditions usually seen over the Southeast have prevailed over most of the Eastern US. The map below, courtesy of Intellicast (http://www.intellicast.com/National/Precipitation/Weekly.aspx), depicts the amount of rainfall received in just the past week, and shows the kind of “marbling” often seen in just the Southeast, where it is common for pop-up thunderstorms to develop and move slowly. This has happened more commonly this summer and over a larger area.

usa precip 85812

Many areas in the Eastern US have already received 30+ inches of rain for the year (https://www.agweb.com/weather/cumulative-rainfall/).

The persistently high humidity levels can have significant and dangerous effects on people. High levels of moisture in the air make it significantly harder for your body to relieve heat. Because your body has to work harder to sweat, high humidity levels cause tiredness and can lead to dehydration, muscle cramps, heat exhaustion and eventually, heatstroke. Take care in these conditions by spending as much time as possible indoors inside air conditioned rooms.

This pattern generally looks like it will last for at least another 10 days or more, but should begin to subside as we get closer to the end of August.

 

 

 

Connection Between Rainfall and Pain?

“I think rain is on the way… my back is acting up today..” Do you know anyone who has said this? Maybe you think your joints are more accurate that your nightly newscast at telling you tomorrow’s weather?

A five-year study published recently in the British Medical Journal looked into a belief that is taken as fact by many people. Can you tell whether rain is on the way by the amount of pain you are feeling? Many people swear that they can tell when the weather is changing by an increase in joint pain in their body. This study looked at senior citizens in the US over a 5-year period to find an association between rainy weather and pain conditions such as arthritis, disc problems and other similar conditions and could not find a correlation. In fact, the study showed a slight inverse correlation – there were slightly fewer incidents of pain-related doctor visits on rainy days, as opposed to dry days.

The study did include days leading up to, and after, rainfall, to take into consideration the changes in barometric pressure that precede and follow a storm. It took as a “rainy day” any day with at least one-tenth of an inch of rain. The researchers looked for correlations between these days, and outpatient visits for pain-related conditions.

This surprising result does not rule out definitively a link between weather and pain. It is possible that people who live with chronic pain do not necessarily visit a doctor or seek out clinical care simply because their symptoms have increased for a day or two. What’s more, if a person knows that their back or their knee tends to flare up when it rains, they will probably just wait until after the rain ends to see if the pain goes away. If it does, that would confirm their self-diagnosis that “rain equals pain” and they would not seek any further treatment. Additionally, since rainy days tend to depress moods, and pain can be affected by mood, it is entirely possible that there is an undetectable mood-based element to people’s pain for which this study cannot account.

Further study is certainly needed. But at the very least, the assumption that bad weather leads to pain should be looked at with a grain of skepticism.

Changing Seasons and Health

Maybe you love the return of the flowers and leaves in spring. Or maybe you enjoy the changing colors of the trees in autumn. Some people love all the outdoor activities they can do in the summer, while others prefer skiing and skating in winter. Whatever reason you have for your favorite season, people usually do prefer one over the others. What causes the seasons? And what are the effects of the seasons on health? Are there healthier seasons? Does the season of one’s birth affect their later health?

The Earth is tilted as it revolves around the sun. As a result, there are times when the Northern Hemisphere faces the sun more directly, and other times when the Southern Hemisphere is more directly in line with the sun. These differences cause the seasons, and are the reason why July is the hottest month in most of the Northern Hemisphere (when it faces the sun), but is the middle of winter south of the equator (pointed away from the sun).

seasons

On my Facebook page, I recently conducted a very unscientific survey of the seasonal preferences of friends and family. While the results were fairly mixed, overall there was a preference for autumn. However, recent larger surveys of Americans tend to affirm that the temperate seasons of fall and spring are favored, with a YouGov survey in 2013 showing fall as the favorite of more people, and a Gallup survey in 2015 showing spring as the favorite of the most people. Could the month of one’s birth have an impact on seasonal preference? While most report that their preferred season has the weather they enjoy most, this can differ from region to region. If you are from Florida, you might prefer winter, because a Florida winter is more temperate and most like spring or fall in the rest of the country.

Some scientific research shows that the season in which one is born might make a person more likely to be prone to mental illness. A study conducted at Vanderbilt University in 2010 demonstrated the so-called “imprinting effect”, at least in mice, in which the daylight one is exposed to during the early months of life has a lasting impact on the brain. This may help explain the greater levels of schizophrenia, depression and seasonal affective disorder in those born in winter. Conversely, babies born in May through June seem to be somewhat healthier overall.

Illness tends to rise during the autumn and winter months. In many cases, this is due to children returning to school and sharing germs with each other in close quarters, and then bringing those viruses back to home to families, who are spending more time indoors during the colder months. The drier indoor air during this time also makes people more susceptible to cold viruses. Flu tends to peak in winter as well for the same reasons. Regardless of the season, doctors insist that the best way to stay free of viruses is through regular hand washing, a good regimen of diet and exercise, and getting enough restorative sleep every night (usually 7-8 hours for most people).

And perhaps the sun itself plays a role in seasonal preference and health. Many people are deficient in vitamin D. The deficiency can cause a number of health problems, including muscle pain and fatigue, and may even play a role in multiple sclerosis and cancer. The easiest and most common way to increase vitamin D in the blood is through sun exposure. The body converts sunlight to vitamin D, which is then used for healthy muscle and bone. The active spring and summer months expose people to sunlight making these deficiencies decrease in summer and fall.

Whatever your favorite season might be, enjoy it!

US Hurricane Relief

No electrical power for light, air conditioning, refrigeration, and other daily needs. Fresh water is scarce. People are scrounging to find food and fuel. This is not the scene of some apocalyptic movie or a description of a developing country. This is happening in the United States, right now, in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. And there are still areas without power in Florida as well. Additionally, the recovery from flooding in the Houston area is continuing and it will take months or longer to fully rebuild the damaged areas.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have caused incredible devastation. Maria is actually still active and may threaten the US east coast this week. The death toll from these three storms is over 200, and countless others have lost their homes and have had their lives totally disrupted. These hurricanes have created health and humanitarian disasters right within our borders, and the people affected are in need of help.

Although many people need goods that were lost, at this point, money is most in need so that organizations in the areas can operate at full strength. Goods also cost money to ship, an issue that is even more difficult in Puerto Rico due to the Jones Act which requires American ships to deliver supplies.

What are some ways you can help? There are some well known international charities, but I’ve chosen 5 below that are ready to help right now and that you might not know about.

  1. ASPCA: aspca.org: Animals are often forgotten when natural disasters strike, but are often just as in need of assistance.
  2. United for Puerto Rico: unidosporpuertorico.com/en: This charity was recently established by the First Lady of Puerto Rico and already has many established sponsors working on the ground there to provide aid and support.
  3. US Virgin Islands Recovery: usvirecovery.org: Many people are unaware of, or have quickly forgotten, the damage done to the US Virgin Islands by Irma and Maria. This charity is focusing its efforts there.
  4. Direct Relief: directrelief.org: Direct Relief is a non-governmental, non-religious humanitarian aid organization with a mission to improve the health and lives of people affected by poverty or emergencies.
  5. GlobalGiving: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/hurricane-maria-caribbean-relief-fund: GlobalGiving is a crowdfunding community which helps nonprofits all over the world access the tools, training, and support they need to be more effective and make our world a better place.

I hope you take the time and make the commitment to help fellow citizens in need.

The Dangers of Extreme Heat

I really don’t like the heat. To me, hot and humid weather is just about the worst kind of weather there is. Well, maybe 35 degrees with rain is worse. I can remember back in college when I worked as a weather observer and had to get up at 6am to take readings.. one day in January it was just above freezing and raining heavily. That hurt.

But heat can hurt too. Actually, it is really quite dangerous. While the onset of summer is a cause for celebration for many people (think children, teachers, families on vacation, etc.) there are weather-related health concerns that are often overlooked or minimized during this season. Summer storms can bring flooding or tornadoes. Summertime also sees the ever increasing likelihood of tropical storms and hurricanes. Air pollution is at its worst. But often more dangerous, and even more overlooked, is the danger posed by extreme heat. And as climate change threatens to make extreme heat events even more common, it is important to recognize the danger posed by extreme heat, and to know what to do about it.

Heat is among the leading weather-related killers in the United States. Sources differ on just how many people die each year due to heat. According to the National Weather Service, over the last 10 years, on average 97 people have died directly from heat-related causes each year. In 2016, the number of heat-related deaths was just under this average, at 94.  Other sources suggest that as many as 1000 people die each year due to heat, though this higher number likely includes indirect heat-related causes of death, such as asthma or other breathing-related illnesses worsened by heat. Older adults tend to bear the brunt of heat-related illnesses and mortality. The National Weather Service reported in 2016 that of the 94 people who died directly due to heat, 67% of these deaths occurred in individuals age 50 or older.

Heat waves tend to be particularly dangerous. While there is no universal definition of a heat wave, it is generally defined as a longer period (usually 3 or more days) of unusually hot and/or humid weather. The extended period of heat, along with unusually warm nights, are what make them so deadly. One of the worst heat waves in US history occurred in the summer of 1936, when temperatures soared across almost the entire country. Particularly hit hard were the upper plains states, like North and South Dakota, but even New Jersey saw temperatures rise above 110 degrees. Many states have all-time high temperature records still standing from this heat wave.

july1936-temps

Average temperatures during July 1936.  
(Image courtesy of the National Centers for Environmental Information)

What’s so dangerous about the heat? Basically, our bodies are meant to stay right around the same temperature all the time, usually between 97.5 and 99.5 degrees for most people. This is why we shiver when it gets cold and sweat when it gets hot–it’s our body trying to regulate itself. But when it gets too hot and humid, sweating doesn’t cool us down enough. Or, we might lose too much fluid, and salt, from sweating. If the body reaches 107 degrees, organs can fail and death may occur. Heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are the three steps of danger in extremely hot conditions. Simple cramping can quickly lead to faintness, nausea, fatigue and headache when heat exhaustion sets in. And if untreated, heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke, a potentially fatal condition.

And it doesn’t have to be excessively hot to cause health problems. The combination of heat and humidity, often called the heat index or the THI (temperature-humidity index) can have the same effect as heat alone. Even temperatures in the upper 80s can become hazardous if relative humidity levels climb toward 60%, a combination found in many areas in the US in the summer. And any prolonged exposure to high heat is dangerous.

So what should you do when the heat hits? Well, obviously, drink plenty of cool fluids and get inside into the air conditioning. Before air conditioning, though, people often went outside to avoid stifling indoor temperatures. Sleeping outside in screened-in porches was common in the days before air conditioning became ubiquitous in the 1940s. Today, there are many ways to keep cool on hot days including:

  • Staying hydrated, particularly avoiding alcohol and caffeine
  • Eating smaller meals, including those with fruits and vegetables not requiring cooking
  • Using fans, like ceiling or box fans, and
  • Moving to lower levels of buildings, since heat tends to rise

Heat brings to mind summer fun for many of us, and rightly so. But keeping the potential dangers in mind, and how to avoid them, allows us to enjoy more summer days to come.

 

Heat-related bonus fact: Many people know about heat waves. But have you ever heard of a heat burst? This rare meteorological phenomenon occurs when a thunderstorm dies out in an area with warm, dry air aloft. The downdraft from the dying storm can pull down the warm, dry air, which warms as it drops. This can cause a rapid rise in temperature. It is rare and short-lasting but can raise temperatures up to 20 or 30 degrees in just a few minutes!