Meteoropathy: how it manifests itself and how it is treated?
Publication date: 05-04-2023
Updated on: 14-04-2023
Topic: Mental health
Estimated reading time: 1 min
Meteoropathy (or Seasonal Affective Disorder) manifests cyclically with symptoms such as alterations in mood, drowsiness, and fatigue that appear during seasonal changes, particularly in the fall and winter months, and then improve as we approach spring. More common in those who already have problems with anxiety or depression, meteoropathy in its most intense forms can come to affect the quality of life of sufferers.
We discuss this with Dr. Marta Colombo, a psychologist at Policlinico San Marco and Smart Clinic Le Due Torri.
What is meteoropathy?
The term "meteoropathy" refers to the set of certain physical and mental disorders that occur depending on variations in weather or seasonal changes in climate.
From a scientific perspective, in 1984, psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal identified meteoropathy as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), defining it as a psychiatric disorder specifically related to environmental variations. According to the psychiatrist, the malaise would be due to the body's difficulty in adapting to weather changes.
A "cyclic" disorder: how does it manifest?
SAD is a disorder that manifests with:
- affective and behavioral symptoms,
- variable intensity,
- cyclic periodicity.
"SAD is characterized by the set of depressive symptoms that recur regularly at the same time and, most commonly, in winter. In the "classic" form of the disorder (Winter-SAD), clinical symptoms have onset at the beginning of the fall season, peak in the winter season, and resolve or improve during summer season," explains Dr. Colombo.
However, there is also a summer form of the disorder: "This is Summer-SAD. Less common, it affects about 3 percent of patients, with symptomatology that begins early in the spring season, worsens during the summer season, and resolves or improves in the winter months."
The most common symptoms are:
- mood alterations (depression, irritability, nervousness etc.),
- sleepiness and excessive need for sleep,
- tendency to social isolation,
- exhaustion and asthenia,
- difficulty in concentrating,
- increased appetite, especially toward carbohydrates,
- stomach pain,
- joint pain.
"In addition to the meteorological influence, the causes of Seasonal Affective Disorder are also attributable to biological factors, related to the production of:
- serotonin: referred to as the "feel-good hormone," is a neurotransmitter that is stimulated through sunlight and produces a feeling of pleasure and well-being.
- melatonin: is a hormone that acts as a "biological clock" in that it is activated during the night hours and is the main regulator of sleep.
Seasonal affective disorder sufferers are more affected by the change of seasons because they tend to produce high amounts of serotonin during the summer, thus becoming sleep-deprived and more irritable, and to produce higher amounts of melatonin in the winter months, becoming more prone to sleepiness and worsening mood," the psychologist explains.
In addition, according to Rosenthal's so-called "Photoperiod Hypothesis" (the duration of daily natural lighting), "meteoropathy" would also be caused by an increase in individual susceptibility as a function of the shortening of the daily light period (which decreases in the winter season).
For these reasons, it is possible to observe great variability in the prevalence of SAD in different geographical areas:
- results maximum in high-latitude countries (where the photoperiod is greatly reduced in the winter months);
- results lowest in low-latitude countries (where the photoperiod is less reduced in the winter months).
An example? In the United States, SAD affects only 1.4 percent of the population in Florida and rises to 8.9 percent in Alaska.
Who is most at risk?
Some people are found to be more at risk of suffering from meteoropathy, in particular:
- women, specifically those who are already prone to premenstrual syndrome, a disorder also with a cyclical pattern that shares many of the symptoms with SAD (hyperphagia, hypersomnia, weight gain, cravings for carbohydrates, anergy, worsening of affective symptoms in the evening hours);
- the elderly;
- those who suffer from alterations, neurological or psychological, in mood, sleep-wake cycle;
- those who already suffer from depressive and anxious or related symptoms (the various changes to which the body is subjected exacerbate pre-existing disorders);
- people who have a particularly disordered, stressful and irregular lifestyle;
- those who suffer from conditions such as rheumatism, headache, hypertension, etc.
Remedies against meteoropathy
One of the treatments for SAD is light therapy or phototherapy (light therapy).
"As mentioned, photoperiod-related alterations can affect mood cycles. This suggests that light therapy may be an effective treatment. This therapy, in particular, uses special lamps that can emit ultraviolet rays (similar to those found in sunlight)," Dr. Colombo points out.
Phototherapy can also consist of natural exposure to sunlight by spending more time outdoors.
"Exercise has also proven to be an effective form of therapy, while on the pharmacological side, SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) antidepressants (SSRIs), in particular, have been shown to be effective.
Useful, then, may also be to undertake psychotherapy, particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy, to help the person identify and scale back negative thoughts and behaviors and learn new healthy ways in order to better manage symptoms.
Finally, there are also practical steps that can be taken and maintained throughout the year in order to strengthen the individual's personal resources and avoid isolation, stress and anxiety, which, as seen, can promote the onset of SAD," the expert suggests. These include:
- elaxation and meditation techniques;
- increased exercise and outdoor activity;
- dietary tricks (such as limiting starches and especially sugars);
- making one's environment brighter and sunnier;
- planning a winter or summer trip depending on the type of SAD.