You know that feeling during a rainy, cold day when you’re in a gloomy mood and you can’t seem to snap out of it? When it’s gray and bleak outside, it’s common for people to feel a bit down — but it’s not just your emotions that are affected.
Daily weather changes, along with long-term climate patterns, impact both your emotional and physical health. Your body can physically feel the effects of the weather.
How Climate Impacts Your Mood
The link between your mood and the climate goes beyond feeling melancholy on a cloudy day. Believe it or not, your emotional health is largely influenced by the climate patterns in your area.
Climate and Depression
In areas where the winter season brings short days and long periods of gloomy weather, depression rates often increase. Individuals who experience depression linked to seasonal changes suffer from a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Seasonal depression can occur in spring and summer for some people, but it’s most common in the winter. This is due to lower levels of sun exposure, which reduces vitamin D production in the body, and impacts the production of feel-good hormones in the brain, such as serotonin. Lack of sunlight also causes the body to produce more melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy. That’s why individuals commonly use light therapy to combat seasonal depression, as this helps mimic sunlight to boost serotonin production and improve mood.
Seasonal depression can affect anywhere from 0-10 percent of the population each year depending on the location. Researchers can predict risk for SAD based on geographical location, because climate is one of the main factors at play. Individuals who live farther from the equator are more likely to get the winter blues — which makes sense because these areas have longer and darker winter seasons.
Climate and Irritability
Dreary days and chilly weather aren’t the only climate patterns that negatively impact your mood. Areas that become hot and humid in the summer typically see higher crime rates during these periods. Though some of this can be attributed to the fact that more people are out on the streets, and days are longer in the summer, it’s also because of high temperatures and extreme heat increase irritability and aggressive behavior.
Climate and Happiness
Research shows that regions where both the summer and winter temperatures are mild generally correlate with higher self-reported happiness in residents. If you’re on a search for the happiest place to live, based on how the climate impacts your mood, look for a place that’s nice year-round where the sun is almost always shining.
There are a number of reasons that could explain why happiness increases in nicer climates. The shining sun and comfortable temperatures encourage people to get outdoors more often. This means residents will be soaking up more sun and creating more vitamin D, which helps the body produce serotonin hormones — the brain’s personal mood boosters.
Plus, if you’re getting outdoors on a regular basis, you’re likely moving around more — and exercise and physical activity are shown to ease negative moods. Exercise releases feel-good chemicals in your brain to relieve anxiety and stress, boost confidence, and keep you energized.
Climate and Memory
The link between regional climate and your brain is about more than happiness and depression. Climate patterns are also linked to memory and creativity. Research has found that individuals who spend just 30 minutes outside during a nice day experience a boost in mood, memory, and creativity; compared to those who stay indoors or those who go outside when the weather isn’t nice.
How Climate Impacts Physical Health
Like with climate and mood, there are many different ways that climate contributes to your physical health. The first is pretty obvious: People in nicer climates tend to get outside more, which gets them moving around. We all know that exercise helps fight obesity, and promote healthy body functions.
It goes deeper than just the amount of time you spend walking around in the park on a sunny day.
Climate and Lethargy
Research shows that cold temperatures reduce sensory feedback, dexterity, blood flow, balance, and muscle strength — essentially, frigid weather impacts your ability to do complex physical tasks. For individuals in cold climates, this can really put a damper on physical health and often reduces the motivation to get up and exercise.
Climate and Eating Habits
Believe it or not, lack of sun actually causes people to eat more (and to eat less healthy foods!). Whether it’s a streak of rainy days, or the winter daylight getting shorter by the minute, the absence of sunlight causes a person’s serotonin levels to drop — and as these levels drop, carbohydrate cravings rise. That’s because eating carbs help increase serotonin levels (briefly). Your body’s cravings for carbs indicate that it’s searching desperately for some way to boost your serotonin. Unfortunately, this solution will only spike your serotonin for a short amount of time. Carbs don’t provide a long-term fix for lack of sunlight, yet those cravings can often lead to overeating.
Climate and Obesity
Research shows climate may have an impact on obesity, and not just because people in cold areas are less likely to get outside and move around. One study reported by Daily Mail suggests that this link may relate to gut bacteria. There are two types of gut bacteria: Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes. Individuals who are obese typically have more Firmicutes in their gut than Bacteroidetes.
This study found that the farther a person was from the equator, the more “bad” bacteria (Firmicutes) they had in their gut, suggesting that these unhealthy bacteria thrive in low temperatures. It may be that at one time in human history, this had an evolutionary advantage, where weight gain in colder climates may have helped people stay warm. Today, with our advanced HVAC systems and other means of temperature control, as well as our knowledge of nutrition, this bacteria does much more harm than good.
Where You Live Matters
When you reflect on your own emotional well-being, your physical health, and even your memory and creativity, consider the region where you live. Do you experience long or short winters? Does your climate bring more sunny days or rainy days? How often are you outside soaking in the sun, versus indoors watching television or curled up on the couch?
Residents in areas like southern California — where it’s always sunny and the temperatures are fairly nice year-round — have more opportunities to get outside and reap the benefits of nice weather. When you compare that to individuals farther from the equator, who only get a handful of nice days per year, you can see why their happiness levels may not be as high — even if they do spend ample time outdoors.
If you live in a less-than-ideal climate, think carefully about getting yourself outside and into the sun every time you have the chance. Exercise, or do something physically active, on a regular basis and be wary when your body craves carbs (in these moments, you may not need as much food as you think). Invest in a high-quality HVAC system for your home, and perform regular maintenance, to combat the effects of the outdoor environment. Remember that it’s just as important to keep your home warm in cold weather as it is to keep it cool and comfortable in humid weather. Give your body every opportunity to get more vitamin D, and boost serotonin levels in your brain.
If you’re looking for a long-term solution to your health, it may be worth it to relocate to an area with a nice climate year-round.
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