Whether the temperature is too hot, too cold, or just right, our bodies respond in different ways. The flu, heart attacks, diabetes diagnosis, depression, and other ailments are all more common in winter months. Summer has its hazards, of course, and winter can even have health advantages. Knowing what's around the corner in terms of seasonal health can help you feel your best all year long.
1. Your Genes Change Seasonally
Recent research has found that the activity of certain genes changes with the seasons. For example, genes that suppress inflammation are more active in the summer. The immune system uses inflammation to help us fight off infections, but it also plays a role in the development of many diseases, and a more active immune system means more inflammation. This might help explain why type 1 diabetes, arthritis, depression, and other mood disorders often flare in winter months. (It's not clear whether temperature, daylight, or other factors affect this gene activity.)
The Flip Side: Because the immune system is more active in winter, it may help us respond better to vaccinations — like your flu shot — given during those months.
2. Your Arteries Don't Like Cold Weather
Exposure to the cold can cause body temperature to drop, especially in children and older people. This can cause the arteries — including those in the heart — to constrict. This raises the risk of heart attack. Chest pain, which is caused by the heart muscles not getting enough blood, is often the first sign of heart attack, but shortness of breath, exhaustion, and generally feeling unwell can also be signs.
The cold may not be the only thing influencing the increase in winter heart attacks. Researchers found that heart attack risk rises between December 25 and January 7, even in warmer areas. Stress, overindulgence in food or drink, travel, and access to health care may play a role in this increase.
The Flip Side: Cold air has health benefits. Researchers have found that cooler temperatures may increase the body's production of brown fat, which is more easily converted to heat, and is associated with a lower risk of diabetes, obesity, and metabolic syndrome. Keeping the thermostat cooler may help us harness this seasonal health effect and prevent these conditions.
Another study showed that exercising in the cold can spur the body's production of brown fat. But be sure to ease into it by stretching or walking before more strenuous exercise. Sudden physical activity in the cold, such as snow shoveling, can put extra stress on the heart.
3. Your Mental Health Can Be Affected Too
The seasons affect our brains, too. Inflammation may play a role in depression and other mood disorders, and incidence of these conditions rises in winter. The short days and lack of light during winter can bring on seasonal affective disorder. This type of depression, which affects up to 6 percent of the population, typically starts in late fall and subsides in spring or summer. People with seasonal affective disorder will have low energy, with a tendency to eat or sleep more. Getting active and outside, eating a healthy diet, or using UV lights can help lift your winter mood.
There is also evidence that our ability to pay attention increases with longer days of summer, while performance on working memory tasks improves during the autumn months.
The Flip Side: Summer may not be all sunshine and roses. There are people — especially children — who experience more insomnia, anxiety, agitation, restlessness, and weight gain in the summer. Disrupted schedules, body image issues, and excess heat may all pay a role in this.
Despite these seasonal health changes, you can stay healthy all year by eating a nourishing diet, staying active, and keeping health care appointments. If something doesn't feel right to you, be sure you reach out to your doctor.
These are just three examples of how your body changes from season to season. Next time the leaves start to fall or the temperatures outside get warmer, keep this information in mind to make sure you're taking the best care of your mind and body.