Call it what you like—winter blues, winter blahs, winter doldrums, winter whatever—but there’s scientific evidence showing that many of your patients may experience downward-spiraling mood swings and even mood disorders during the cold months because cold temperatures can stress out the body.
Here’s a quick review of how cold weather affects the body in negative ways and can cause a person to feel down in the dumps during the winter months.
Deficiency of Vitamin D
In the winter, people tend to spend less time outdoors because there are fewer hours of daylight. And when we are outside in the cold, we bundle up accordingly. The result is that the body receives less of the sunlight it needs to synthesize vitamin D. You may consider suggesting that your patients get 20 minutes of exposure to sunlight daily. Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to weight gain because vitamin D helps break down digested fat; without its function, more calories than normal are stored as fat.
Stiffness in the Muscles and Joints
In cold weather, our bodies may become more sensitive due to the fact that they are 70% water. Muscles can lose elasticity as the temperature drops. Athletes know about this effect because they need to spend a longer time stretching their muscles before workouts or participating in an athletic event. Cold weather can also thicken fluid in joints and cause pain. And some studies suggest that arthritic flare-ups tend to occur more frequently on cold, damp days.
Hair, Nails, and Skin Weaken
Hair scales can weaken in cold weather, causing hair cuticles to warp. Split ends can form in the area where hair scales shrink. Because blood circulation is slower in cold temperatures, fingernails and toenails grow slower in the colder months. Brittle and weaker nails can result when the keratin in the body, which helps nails grow, is diverted to keeping the body warm. When temperatures drop below 50°F, it sends blood vessels near the surface of the skin into a tizzy as they alternate between dilating and constricting. This phenomenon happens because your body is trying to conserve heat while simultaneously trying to supply oxygen and nutrients to the skin, causing many of your patients to walk through your door in winter months with those rosy red cheeks and noses!
More people get sick in the winter because of viral contagion. Science has not caught up with hard evidence as to whether this increase in sickness occurs because of correlation or causation. However, research has indicated that the flu virus is transmitted less frequently in warm, humid environments than in cold environments. Several factors may possibly contribute to this effect. Cold weather causes mucus membranes in the nose to dry out, resulting in a weakening of their protective efforts, enabling cold and flu viruses to enter the body more easily. The protective shell of a virus is stronger in the colder months; warm weather thins the shell and the virus is less likely to survive. Droplets of aerosolized viruses remain airborne for longer periods of time in cold weather, increasing the odds of the virus spreading from person to person via inhalation.
The Body’s Neural Chemistry Can Go Haywire
The cold causes the brain to increase its production of melatonin, which helps the body to sleep, while encouraging the brain to produce less serotonin, which is connected to wakefulness. This fluctuation interferes with the normal functioning of these 2 hormones, disrupting the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.
Some studies suggest that winter weather may increase the risk of a heart attack. Arteries tighten in cold weather, restricting blood flow and reducing the heart’s oxygen supply. In addition, reduced exposure to sunlight in the winter months can lower the threshold for a cardiovascular event due to hormonal imbalances. These are reasons why your patients with coronary heart disease may experience chest pain or discomfort during the winter months.
High Blood Pressure Spike
In general, blood pressure is lower in warmer temperatures. Blood pressure can rise in colder months because blood vessels narrow in frosty weather. More force is needed to pump the blood through narrower arteries and veins, causing this increase.
Risk of Bodily Harm
Exposure to bitter temperatures for too long can cause such devastating conditions as frostbite and hypothermia. Worst-case scenarios for frostbite include amputation, and if not treated quickly, hypothermia can be fatal.
Airways in asthmatics have an increased sensitivity to changes in temperature and humidity. Patients who are asthmatic may encounter exercise-induced asthma while outdoors because dry, cool air causes the lungs to lose heat and moisture, resulting in airways too narrow during exercise. Symptoms include tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing. Decreased physical performance can start a few minutes after exercise begins and typically peaks after 10 minutes of exercising.
Winter depression, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a type of mood disorder that mostly rears its ugly head in colder temperatures (it may occur in the summer months as well, but it’s not as likely). Such patients exhibit normal mental health patterns during warmer months. Once again, the shorter winter days provide less sunlight, which many researchers suggest contribute partially to SAD. Those who suffer from SAD are particularly sensitive to light, or the lack of light. SAD affects more women than men, and is most prevalent in people between the ages of 18 and 30. Patients who suffer with SAD may have abnormally low levels of serotonin and excessively high levels of melatonin, which can wreak havoc on the body’s regulatory process, including compromised energy levels, poor quality of sleep, and the overall feeling of depression.
Armed with the knowledge of how the cold affects our bodies, we can all better prepare for brutally bitter elements and take the necessary steps to combat the negative effects of Old Man Winter!
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