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Your Brain on Nature: How Cold Weather Affects Us and Fending Off Seasonal Depression

By Angela Myers 2 months agoNo Comments
Home  /  EcoMedicine  /  Your Brain on Nature: How Cold Weather Affects Us and Fending Off Seasonal Depression
cold weather

Goblins and ghosts aren’t the only thing to haunt our streets during spooky season. Cooler weather and the changing seasons can give you a scare too. But could cold weather cause more than just shivers? Let’s explore how your brain changes as the weather grows colder.

Cozy book, blanket, and sweater

Your Brain and Cold Weather

As the weather begins to grow colder, many people experience increased sadness and decreased productivity. In the extreme, this can cause seasonal affective disorder. But why exactly does the cold weather lower moods?

In 2020, researchers from the University of Ottawa were the first to examine the cold weather’s impact on indoor cognitive performance. They looked at 63,000 exams taken by adult learners. All exams were taken in an air-controlled indoor space and the only variable was the outdoor temperatures. During times of year with extremely cold weather, the test-takers saw a 10% decrease in cognitive performance.

Of course, studies before this landmark 2020 research investigated how exposure to extreme weather could impact brain health, not why.

A 2018 study looked at brain scans to determine why colder weather slows cognitive functioning. The researchers specifically looked at what happened to rat brains when exposed to extreme temperatures. When in temperatures below 5 degrees celsius, the rat’s brains produced more oxidative stress, which can cause traumatic brain injury over time.

While there hasn’t been as much clinical research around the effect of extremely cold temperatures on humans, those who are rescued from extreme cold often show signs of increased oxidative stress production too, which can lead to long-term brain trauma. This risk of brain trauma is why cold weather wilderness medicine is so important–and yet another reason not to expose yourself to extreme cold for long periods of time!

Obviously, more research could paint a better picture of cold weather’s effects on our brain. Yet, the current body of research does suggest something many of us feel. When the weather outside is frightful, we feel less productive, have decreased cognitive functioning, and are more keen to hibernate (or binge netflix) than to be productive.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

The 2020 research from the University of Ottawa misses one main variable others point to as the reason colder seasons affect our brain: decreased light exposure. In fact, many scientists believe it might not be the cold weather that affects us, but the decreased natural light.

As the weather gets colder, the days also get shorter. When it’s dark by 5pm and not light until later in the morning, your mood may be affected. This negative effect is commonly referred to as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD affects 1 in 20 people in the northern half of the US–and does tend to be worse in colder climates. It is a variant of major depression but unlike other variants, SAD only occurs at one time of the year. There’s also a SAD seasonal to summer, but this is way less common.

Characterized by depression, fatigue, hopelessness, and social withdrawal, SAD occurs most frequently in climates where certain seasons (depending on your location, worldwide) bring less sunlight.

Feel less SAD in Winter

While the sun might appear less often, your chances of improving your mental well-being don’t have to go with it. There are plenty of solutions to SAD, including:

  • Light therapy: A small randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-center trial from 2007 looked specifically at the efficacy of a LED light therapy device in the treatment of SAD. The results found at the trial end showed the LED light therapy improved the mood of participants.
  • Spend time outside when possible: if the weather permits, try to spend at least 20 minutes outside each day. A meta-review from 2019 found a positive correlation between time in nature and improved cognitive and emotional health, as well as other indicators of good mental and physical health. If you can’t spend time in nature because it’s too cold, workout or read near a window with natural light. Some studies suggest looking at nature or spending time in natural light can provide some of the same benefits as time outdoors.
  • Consider a Vitamin D supplement: one of the main benefits of sunlight is that it provides us with our Vitamin D. During winter, many people’s vitamin D levels drop to a dangerously low level. Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to osteoporosis, type II diabetes, psoriasis, and many other conditions.

While the cold weather can impact our brains negatively, most of that negative impact comes from not enough time in natural light and not enough time outside. If we dress properly for the cold and understand when we need to add supplements or light therapy to our lifestyles, we can avoid many of the cognitive impacts of cold weather.

If you want even more ways to combat the cold weather before it’s in full swing, consider downloading my free guide to beat SAD. This guide provides comprehensive solutions to SAD, including supplements, activities, and more.



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