By Amelia Zannoni
Extreme Summer Heat & Your Mental Health
As the scorching summer sun beats down across the globe, many of us are familiar with the physical toll that extreme heat can take on our bodies- the sweat, fatigue, and discomfort. In light of recent research however, there’s been a lesser-known impact of heatwaves and high temperatures: their profound influence on mental health. Beyond mere visible signs of sweat and exhaustion, extreme summer heat can trigger a cascade of emotional and behavioral changes that affect our mental well-being.
The Serotonin Connection: Unveiling the Mood Regulator
Serotonin, often referred to as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, plays a crucial role in regulating mood and emotions. It’s the chemical messenger responsible for maintaining feelings of happiness, joy, and tranquility. However, studies have revealed that excessive heat can disrupt the delicate balance of serotonin in the brain, leading to a range of emotional and behavioral shifts.
Feelings of anger, irritability, aggression, discomfort, stress, and fatigue are some of the telltale signs that heat-induced changes in serotonin levels can trigger. These shifts can cause a noticeable dip in happiness and joy while heightening stress and fatigue levels. So, when the summer heatwaves strikes, and you find yourself feeling more on edge unusually fatigued, it might not just be the weather- it could be your brain’s neurological response to the heat.
The Vulnerable Populations: Who’s Most Affected?
While extreme heat can impact everyone to some extent, certain groups are particularly vulnerable to its effects on mental health. People with preexisting mental health conditions, such as stress, anxiety, or depression, are at a higher risk of experiencing intensified symptoms due to changes in serotonin levels. Additionally, individuals who consume substances like alcohol need to exercise extra caution.
Dr. Asim Shah, a renowned psychiatrist from Baylor College of Medicine, explains: “All mental illnesses increase with heat because it results in more fatigue, irritability and anxiety, and it can exacerbate depressive episodes.”
If you’re someone who takes part in recreational substances like alcohol, staying hydrated becomes even more critical during periods of extreme heat. Combining substance use with high temperatures places additional stress on your body and brain, demanding increased hydration.
Recognizing the Signs and Taking Action
Identifying the impact of heat on mental health isn’t always straightforward, but there are telltale signs to watch out for. If you find yourself becoming increasingly irritable, experiencing decreased motivation, or even encountering mental fog during a heatwave, it might be time to take action. In severe cases, confusion and disorientation can set in.
Dr. Shah offers practical advice for coping with heat-related mental health challenges:
- Staying hydrated with electrolytes and covering your head when going outside can help regulate body temperature.
- A refreshing splash of water on your head can contribute to cooling down.
- If you’re in the habit of taking outdoor walks, try to find a spot that’s mostly shaded (& bring an extra large water bottle with you too!)
- You can also move your outdoor walks to indoor, air-conditioned spaces like malls.
Medications and Climate Change: Navigating Potential Risks
For those taking medications for mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder, it’s important to consult with a healthcare provider before facing excessive heat. Some medications, like lithium, are sensitive to changes in body temperature and sweat levels. Lithium, which is often prescribed for bipolar patients, passess through the kidneys. When sweating increases, lithium levels in the body can fluctuate, potentially leading to imbalances.
Dr. Shah emphasizes the importance of vigilance in such scenarios. Adjusting medication dosages or avoiding extreme heat might be necessary to ensure the stability of mental health treatment.
Climate Change and Mental Health: A Disturbing Link
As climate change continues to reshape our environment, its effects on mental health have become increasingly evident. Beyond temperature extremes, climate-related factors like droughts and worsened air quality can intensify mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Studies have demonstrated a startling connection between exposure to natural climate disasters and increased rates of depression and anxiety. Vulnerable populations, including children, are at a heightened risk due to their prolonged outdoor exposure to pollutants and allergens.
Taking Care of Your Mind During Summer Heatwaves
While we may not have control over the weather, we can take steps to safeguard our mental well-being during extreme heat waves. Staying hydrated, seeking shaded areas, and modifying outdoor activities can make a significant difference. If you’re on medication for mental health conditions, consult your healthcare provider before confronting excessive heat. As climate change continues to cast its shadow, advocating for sustainable practices and policies become crucial not only for our environment but also for our collective mental health.
In the sweltering heat of summer, be sure to remember to prioritize not only our physical health but also the well-being of our minds. By understanding the intricate interplay between heat, serotonin, and mental health, we can take proactive steps to navigate the challenges of extreme temperatures while nurturing our emotional resilience.
Source: Neuroscience News
Amelia Zannoni is currently an undergraduate student at Nova Southeastern University studying neuropsychology. She is currently studying how neuropathologies work and hopes to go onto developing many beneficial techniques in her field.