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The Weather and Your Symptoms

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.

Leave a Comment

  1. Deb says:

    I recently read that a drop in barometric pressure allows an increase in swelling that exacerbates symptoms.

    “You take a balloon and you put it into a vacuum. As the pressure is reduced around that balloon, it expands,” he explained. “And so the same thing within the tissues around the joints. If there’s already swelling, inflammation, abnormal mechanics in the joint, as the pressure goes down, the gas and tissue expand, and this is felt as more pain by the patient. This is why they sense a change in barometric pressure.”

  2. Mark Hoover says:

    Just wanted to let you know that I have the same thing occur in my practice. Patients that have been improving suddenly reported feeling much worse for no apparent reason. I spent my day yesterday blaming the weather and I’m sure more than one of my patients thought I was nuts, but it was a clear pattern. So when I saw the title to your newsletter, I had to chuckle.

  3. Patrice says:

    I have a long history of constant changes in air pressure from being a million mile flyer to homes in Chicago and Evergreen CO (8400 ft in altitude). While problems with sinuses and headaches are pretty well documented other symptoms are not. For instance, I frequently suffer from pain/gas in my intestines when changing altitude. My husband and I notice that our joints are stiffer the first few days in our CO home.

    I did a search for more information and found only the following studies cited:

    Weather and Health by H.E. Landsberg, published by Doubleday Anchor in 1969, and
    Human Biometeorology: An Updated, Selected Bibliography – 1995 published by the U.S. National Climatic Data Center in 1985.

    This would be an excellent research paper for a graduate student.

  4. Thanks, Dr. E for your brilliant and insightful newsletters. You not only help to educate and validate me as a Fibro sufferer, but inspire me as a holistic healer

  5. I will remember that I heard this from you first. Who knows when a study will be available to support it!

  6. Maureen McLaughlin says:

    I definitely experience this phenomenon. I had surgery in my foot to remove a malignant melanoma and a skin graft. If it’s going to rain or snow I always “feel” it one or two days before. It can be a few lightning-strike like jabs or an ache or both. And quite frankly, it is more reliable than the weather service because it is sensing “what is,” and not what they are projecting is!

  7. Lou says:

    My wife has bipolar 2. Years ago leaving our honeymoon she left her medication in her luggage, and she was heading into a full blown psychotic episode – only 3 weeks after she was hospitalized for 10 days. We got on the fight back home and when we reached high altitudes she completely snapped out of it. She was then off meds for 2 years till our first kid. I always thought something was linked to that, and never understood why this therapy was not investigated – do you think that a simple flight can reset the brain? And should I take my wife on a flight 1 time a year?

  8. Dr E says:

    Hi Lou
    The workings of the brain are so complex that I certainly would not be surprised that what occurred with your wife could really be attributed to the altitiude change. Thanks for sharing this and yes, take your wife on a flight annually

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