Weather sensitivity: is it really there?

Can a storm cause joint pain or migraines? Are temperature drops and thunderstorms to blame for our lows? Meteoropathy is the name of the phenomenon when you feel the weather. But what is it? A fact check.

Germans are particularly sensitive to the weather

At least half of Germany states that the weather has an impact on health. Women in particular are sensitive. At the top of the symptom hit list: headache, fatigue, exhaustion and joint pain. “All literature on the subject comes from German-speaking countries,” says Munich Professor of Biometeorology Peter Höppe. In other countries, however, the word weather sensitivity doesn’t even exist. “The English like to talk about the weather, but not in terms of their state of mind – they look for other reasons for this.” Nevertheless, biotropy, as one calls the effect of weather stimuli on our well-being, is not an imagination. “Even if the causal relationships have not yet been clarified everywhere, this has been proven by numerous studies,” says Professor Andreas Matzarakis from the Center for Medical-Meteorological Research of the German Weather Service in Freiburg. But the weather itself does not make you sick. It only attacks existing weak points. “Anyone who is stressed, undergoes hormonal changes, has health problems or has eaten two knuckles of pork the day before is not in top shape.” A change in the weather acts as an additional factor here – and could bring the barrel to overflowing.

Hair dryer depresses the mood

To anticipate the answer: yes and no. “The foehn is a particularly effective weather situation,” says expert Peter Höppe. Some react to the warm fall wind from the Alps and the associated rapid rise in temperature with restless sleep, migraines and dejection. A Munich study even found that suicide attempts and admissions to psychiatry increase by 20 percent on hair dryer days. This could also explain why California’s warm Santa Ana winds are called Devil’s Breath. On the other hand, the number of rescue missions in which alcohol or drugs play a role is falling. Maybe because the hair dryer itself is intoxicating? “Some feel it like a glass of champagne. It revives them.” And who doesn’t notice anything? May not be sensitive to the weather or have just moved to the foothills of the Alps. “It takes seven years in Munich to feel good about hairdryers in a negative sense,” says Peter Höppe. A little tip from the experts: The stable climate in East Germany would be an alternative to living for anyone who’s blown by the wind.

When grandma’s knee pinches, there’s snow

“There are people who can reliably feel when snow comes the next day. That means caution,” says biometeorologist Peter Höppe. People with cardiovascular diseases, rheumatism, arthritis or with scars and amputated limbs would often have more symptoms or phantom pain before the weather changes. They are sensitive to the weather. That means: Your chronic basic illness is aggravated by temperature, humidity, radiation conditions or air pressure. However, those affected cannot clairvoyance as a result. “You can’t feel anything that isn’t already there.” Science has two suspects in its sights as triggers for sensitivity: electromagnetic impulse radiation from distant thunderstorm fronts and low-frequency fluctuations in air pressure, which are triggered by storms or earthquakes, for example. It is easy to explain why older people in particular seem to have prophetic abilities: “If the number of previous illnesses increases, the body offers more points of attack,” says expert Andreas Matzarakis.

Air conditioning systems are good for the working atmosphere

On the contrary: Poorly adjusted air conditioning systems are a problem and can lead to sick building syndrome. “It almost has the effect of being sensitive to the weather – a disproportionately large number of people then have complaints such as headaches,” says Peter Höppe. Excessive air changes, for example, cause drafts. But even the most modern systems do not necessarily raise the mood in the heat. “Because there is no such thing as a temperature at which everyone feels comfortable. Women prefer it to be warmer because they produce less heat than men,” explains biometeorologist Andreas Matzarakis. So does the onion look in the open-plan office help – or a fake thermostat at the workplace: “Employees who were able to turn the dummy in a study were immediately better off – the feeling of being able to regulate the temperature themselves has a high psychological effect” , says Peter Höppe.

The rain hardens

“No one can do against the weather, but against the reaction to it,” says Professor Andreas Matzarakis. Instead of crumbling on the sofa in the cold and rain, we should go out consciously. That toughens up those who are sensitive to the weather just as much as exercise, saunas, Kneipp baths or alternating showers. The effect: the body can adapt better to extreme weather changes. Many of them have partially lost this ability to regulate. Because while we once romped in the wilderness, today we spend 85 percent of our time indoors. The good news: the weather can also have a positive effect on us. “In sunshine, calm and temperatures between 18 and 25 degrees there is no challenge for our thermoregulation, ailments become milder, and instead of the sleep hormone melatonin, the mood enhancer serotonin is released.” Long live the high pressure area.

Bioweather forecasts make us sensitive

We know it: If the partner has gastrointestinal tract, we suddenly feel sick too. Clear case of imagination. Critics say the so-called bio-weather forecast has a similarly negative effect. Anyone who reads in the morning that the weather can lead to biliary colic today will immediately feel less well. This is called the nocebo effect. It cannot be dismissed out of hand. Nevertheless, Peter Höppe thinks the service from the German Weather Service makes sense. “If I know, for example by keeping a diary, which weather conditions I am sensitive to, I can adapt my behavior or, if necessary, use medication to counter the symptoms in consultation with the doctor.” So this is where the opinions of the weather differ.

If the weather changes, the contractions come

Birth follows snow? Some midwives swear by it. But the research results on the baby boom when the weather changes are inconsistent. “The data situation is very poor, and there are no studies that have found a significant connection – but I don’t want to rule it out completely,” says Professor Peter Höppe. Some studies would suggest that possibly large changes in temperature and air pressure lead to a minimally higher birth rate. That the rumor has been around for ages is no proof. “It is also believed that the phases of the moon have an influence on the growth of plants and the weather – although this is clearly not related.” But it can’t hurt to have the hospital bag close at hand.

Prof. Dr. Andreas Matzarakis heads the Center for Medical-Meteorological Research of the German Weather Service in Freiburg

Prof. Dr. Dr. Peter Höppe is an expert on natural hazards, climate change, biometeorology and chairman of the Munich University Society

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