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Bite into biometeorology

While visiting the public library yesterday, I dodged an assortment of community health flora – lingering coughs, limb injuries, and severe fatigue. I fit right in, nursing my worst bout of arthritis and tennis elbow ever. These all seem like unrelated conditions, but are they?

Every year the fall and winter months uncoil a long string of health challenges for my family and friends. While the viral ‘flu’ season steals the show, there are many other conditions rankled by Mother Nature. Arthritis, migraines, asthma, heart attacks, pneumonia and other unpleasantries have been linked to changes in weather patterns. Keyword here is change. The study of how these atmospheric changes affect living organisms is called biometeorology. And it’s probably not mentioned on your local weather channel.

As a closet weather nerd, I use a personal weather station to track data and later overlay it on my symptom charts from ChartMySelf.  Sure enough, big swings in barometric pressure are the hardest to endure, and the swings are more prevalent in winter as storms pass through. Humidity changes are also tough for me, as we get dramatic changes with autumnal hot winds or summertime fog. Low temperatures with low pressure send me limping toward the joint creme, while increases in barometric pressure or drops in humidity aggravate my sinus congestion, sleep and fatigue.

There are a few recent and not-so-recent Internet articles on the subject that sent me stormchasing. Who is studying this? To what extent does weather affect us? How can we prevent impact on large populations? How can each of us improve our condition? And most importantly…how can these discoveries help us understand more about our inner workings?

Turns out, a large number of discoveries on the health impact of weather have been made in the last 50 years. A review of studies and references are quite helpful in Climate Effects on Human Health. Despite the exciting associations, most research disappears in the shadows of more popular studies on drug treatments and test tube reproductions. Even among experts there is an underlying sentiment that weather is impossible to change and research seems futile. Biometeorologists are far and few between, and the subject is complicated by its intense cross-disciplinary nature. Most progress has been driven by specialists willing to bravely cross disciplinary boundaries.

While some studies cannot clearly confirm links between weather and health, there are others that offer fascinating clues:

Hypotheses on how climate affects viral outbreaks – US, Feb 2011

Low relative humidities (indoor heating) and cold temperatures increase influenza virus spread – US , 2007

Rheumatic arthritis activity tends to decrease in fall and increase in spring – Japan, 2007

Pain is affected by weather more in some individuals than others – Norway, 2011

Arthritis can be caused by viral infections – Finland, 2006

NSAIDs are less effective in rainy weather (in rats) – Turkey, 2009

Temperature affected asthma and hay fever more than other factors (+ personalized wheel invention)

Changes in temperature and humidity within days increase asthma admissions – US, 2009

Spring/summer air masses with high pollution associate with asthma admissions – US, 1997

Seasonal outbreaks of Saharan dust combined with precipitation increase the release of iron nanoparticles by microorganisms, possibly associating with migraines. (50-75% of dust around the world is from Africa) Low pressure also  anticipated headache.

Exposure to Saharan dust (transported across continents) increased nitric oxide levels and may be a trigger for headaches. – Turkey, 2009

Surface cooling (in winter) increases blood platelets, red cells, viscosity and blood pressure that may increase thrombosis – UK, 1984

Temperature drops affects mortality levels in warmer, temperate locations – Greece, 2008

Hospitalization increases for multiple conditions when same-day temps rise 10° C – US, 2010

Variation in temperature during the day relates to death from coronary heart disease – China, 2009

Risk of stroke increased with weather conditions – rainfall, low temps, and number of cold days – more pronounced in women – Japan, 2009

Infectious gastroenteritis increased with temperature and lower humidity in Japan – Japan, 2010

Seasonal variation of enteric infections and IBS – Enland

K. pneumoniae (bacteria) is more prevalent in warm, humid months – Intl, 2008

Wet weather and intense short storms increases E. coli density – Intl, 2011

To summarize, dramatic changes in temperature are hard on the body and even harder when we live in temperate climates. Most viruses appear to survive longer and transmit easier with lower humidity and temperatures, explaining our flu seasons. Most bacteria prefer warm, humid environments, though each species has unique, optimal conditions. Atmospheric dust which travels most in the spring delivers a new group of microorganisms (and pollutants) across continents, affecting biology from algae to coral to humans. Sunlight and precipitation affects atmospheric iron-rich nanoparticles which might affect health. Changes in barometric pressure are even more complex and may follow this sequence: lowered barometric pressure reduces oxygen availability – even slightly – which can affect tissue permeability; less available oxygen also causes acid to build up in the body; blood pH may decrease (becoming more acidic) with lower body temperature which provides optimal breeding grounds for pathogens already inside. Considering this delicate web of mechanisms, weather could indirectly affect the body’s ability to perform and protect from viruses and other pathogens which thrive in more acidic environments.

We need more research to better define the associations between weather and health. Studies will need to account for huge variables like human behavior, nutritional deficiencies, undiagnosed conditions, environmental pollution, and demographics. As with most research, the available data is limited to extremes – diagnosed cases, hospital admissions and mortalities rather than ‘subclinical’ or early-stage symptoms that affect so many more lives. Perhaps we can start tracking our own experiences to make connections faster. If we look closely, we may see a storm named Gaia rapidly approaching…

For a personalized health forecasts based on weather, check out MediClim.

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