How Cold Weather Affects The Brain
Some of us find winter weather invigorating. The cold energizes us, makes us feel sharp and at the top of our game. For others, it’s a completely different experience. We feel tired and sluggish. Some even experience seasonal depression. Research has been exploring the different ways weather impacts the way our brain works and has come up with some surprising results.
Cold And The Brain
It’s important to note that while we’re often encouraged to put a hat on our head to stay warm, our brain doesn’t actually feel cold. It’s nestled in our skull, surrounded by an extra layer of protective tissue––the meninges, and cerebrospinal fluid that act as an insular heating system. No matter whether we bundle our skull up or not, our brain will stay warm.
There’s a pervasive belief in our society that cold weather slows us down. We’ve compared our slower pace to similarities in hibernating species, believing that shorter days and longer nights combined with cold weather shut our bodies down. And this in turn affects our brain. But research is finding that this isn’t true. At least, not entirely.
In cognitive performance tests focusing on math skills and verbal tests, men performed better at cooler temperatures. However, the main indicator of whether someone would perform cognitively better or worse was whether they were comfortable or not. Comfort, it turns out, is one of the most important factors in cognitive performance. But cold weather does impact one key area in our body, which in turn, impacts our brain.
Our Brain and Glucose
One key finding in cold weather studies is how cold weather impacts our glucose production. Again, while our brain stays warm, keeping our body as a whole warm requires more energy. However, glucose is also our brain’s primary energy source. If we don’t increase the amount of glucose levels in our body to both maintain temperature and feed our brain, the result can be sluggish thinking and slower cognitive performance.
When our body temperature struggles to regulate, it can kick our thyroid into hyperdrive. In addition to helping regulate our body temperature, the thyroid is important in maintaining our moods, weight, and energy levels. If lack of glucose causes our thyroid to work overtime, it can overproduce hormones trying to find the right balance, and this can lead to brain fog and feeling overly tired. Unfortunately, because this can also induce weight gain, it could trigger us to eat less, which only makes the problem worse.
In order to produce glucose, we need to eat the right foods, in the right amounts, otherwise, our entire body can be thrown out of balance. Because the brain needs a lot of glucose to function, if our body is taking our glucose stores to survive, our cognitive abilities will struggle as a result.
Other Key Factors
Researchers have also been studying the implications of winter and our mental health, primarily as it relates to Seasonal Affective Disorder or seasonal depression. Almost one-fourth of the population will suffer symptoms of this disorder at some point in their lives, though it has less to do with the weather and more to do with decreased exposure to sunlight, which leads to lower levels of Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps keep us healthy, but also helps maintain balance in our neurochemical levels in important mood hormones like serotonin and dopamine. Drops in these chemicals can cause depression and anxiety, both of which interfere with our cognitive functioning.
Lack of sunlight also impacts our circadian rhythms. With less of the blue light sun rays that stimulate cortisol production, the hormone that tells our brain and body to wake up and get moving, we can begin producing too much melatonin instead. Too much melatonin can lead to us feeling groggy and tired throughout the day.
Whether or not we like cold weather seems to be a personal preference. There are factors that can impact how our body and brain function in colder weather, but because our brain is insulated beneath bone and other tissue, the temperature itself doesn’t have a direct impact on it. However, it’s important to understand how staying warm can impact other body functions that can disrupt hormone levels or glucose production so that we can stay happy, healthy, and productive no matter what the weather is.