I can always tell when there’s a major drop in barometric pressure by the number of e-mails I get from patients that begin, “I can’t believe I’m having such a terrible flare-up of my…”
Most commonly affecting those with fibromyalgia and migraines, a pressure drop can also exacerbate depression, sinus headaches, arthritis, PMS, and even multiple sclerosis.
It’s surprising how few doctors are interested in this phenomenon, and my guess is their thinking follows the old saw about weather in general: If you don’t like it, wait a few minutes. And frankly, from their point of view, they’ve got a point. What can your doctor do but acknowledge your discomfort?
Still, it’s such a common phenomenon that it merits a health tip. But for me personally, try as I might, when I track barometric pressure and wait for something to happen, I don’t feel a thing. But just because I don’t feel it certainly doesn’t mean it’s not happening to millions of others all around the world.
Here’s what I think is going on. And since I can’t locate any research on cause and effect in this area, remember, you read it here first.
Consider the brain chemical serotonin and how it acts as our stress-buffering system. Women’s serotonin levels are barely one quarter those of men’s, so women are biochemically far more sensitive to stressors from any source. Or, conversely, men are almost too thoroughly protected from stress, to the extent that they’re a bit numb to the outside world. Inadvertently, but with excellent insight, women call this numbness “cluelessness.”
So all women, across the board, are more sensitive to any stress, and that does include the stress from the very weight of all the air above us, which meteorologists call barometric pressure. I strongly suspect, although this hasn’t been documented, that most women feel something when the weather changes in ways that men, protected by their high serotonin, do not.
Women on the truly low end of the serotonin curve—you who for genetic reasons have even less serotonin than the average under-served woman–are so especially sensitive to stress that I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic when I characterize your relationship to the outside world as walking “open wounds” in a world that feels like one large salt shaker.
When protracted stress exceeds the stress buffer, women in this group are the ones prone to develop low-serotonin disorders like depression, anxiety, fibromyalgia, migraines, fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, and worsened PMS, all very genuine and disabling conditions that fly under the radar of standard diagnostic testing.
Now, if these super-sensitive women are exposed to a sudden change in the weight of the immense amount of air above them, they will feel it. Most women in this group understand how stress itself (a bad day at the office, relationship issues) triggers their symptoms, but since hardly anyone checks the barometer daily, a sudden surge of symptoms can catch even these women (and of course low-serotonin men, too) completely by surprise.
I’m made aware of shifts in barometric pressure by the sudden increase in the number of e-mails I receive. In fact, some time ago when a super-storm front moved through Chicago, downing trees and closing O’Hare, I turned on my computer that morning to 25 emails (it’s usually two or three) from physically and emotionally miserable patients, a veritable woeful chorus of “What’s happening to me?”
I linked them all to weather.com and advised that the effect would pass in a few hours and to take pain meds, migraine meds, etc., as needed for the next 24 hours. Of course, they could also consider moving to San Diego, which boasts the least variation in barometric pressure in the US.
But then they’d have to suffer endless beautiful weather, warmth, and sunshine. Might be too stressful for native Chicagoans.