By Patricia Fennell and Stephen Leon
When a summer heat wave settles over us like an oppressive shroud, we know what we can expect from the headlines. There will be warnings to stay inside in air conditioning, stay hydrated, and keep physical exertion to a minimum. There will be reports of hospitals taking in victims of heat stroke and heat exhaustion, and worse, grim stories of heat-related deaths.
We can also expect a spike in certain types of crimes, regardless of whether they make the headlines. Statistically, we know that some categories of crime do not fluctuate with the air temperature—but we also know that extreme heat does correlate with spikes in physical assault in general, and domestic violence in particular.
Anecdotally, we also know to expect increased incidents of road rage, and more arguments and fights on the street, in bars, and in the kitchens and back bedrooms across from your own rear window. Oh, and we’re sure to see a sampling of Ten Ways to Beat the Heat stories, some of which may be more useful than others, although these lists sometimes carry roughly the same depth and gravity as household redecorating tips.
Beyond the headlines, heat waves affect all of us in ways that are both obvious and unseen—and potentially dangerous. And if extreme heat poses health risks to relatively healthy people, those risks are much more pronounced among the most vulnerable populations: the old, the young, and the chronically ill.
We’re all familiar with the term “seasonal affective disorder,” which refers primarily to symptoms that appear with the onset of winter, including depression, low energy, appetite loss, inadequate sleep, loss of interest in usually enjoyable activities, and so forth. While the causes of SAD are not full understood, it is generally thought that the reduction in daily sunlight—and with it, the disruption of the internal body clock, and changes in the levels of brain chemicals—is a significant factor.
Some people, however, are more prone to “reverse seasonal affective disorder,” which switches the timing of the symptoms to the onset of summer. And people who don’t do so well with the heat and long days are going to be that much more affected by a heat wave. So are the vulnerable groups generally, especially the chronically ill, who make up over half the population—and are among the most susceptible to the risks of extreme heat, which can both exacerbate their symptoms and even worsen the underlying conditions.
It’s the Inflammation
Although extreme heat can harm us mentally and physically in a number of ways, the biggest culprit is inflammation, which can present in many different forms and affect everything from cognition to digestion to balance to your ability to get a good night’s sleep. And inflammation can cause pain wherever in the body it occurs.
How can we manage inflammation during a heat wave?
• Stay hydrated—and limit things that dehydrate you, like caffeine and alcohol.
• Exercise moderation, and employ sensible practices with sleep, food, hygiene, etc.
• Try not to have big stress-inducing conversations. This isn’t the best time to pick an unnecessary fight with your spouse or make a life-changing decision like moving or changing jobs.
• Consider looking at an anti-inflammatory diet. Google it and read up. An anti-inflammatory diet can help anybody—it doesn’t matter who you are or whether you have chronic illness.
• Stick to your structures and routines. Prepare ahead of time: gas up the car, make sure you have your basic provisions, get enough cash out of the ATM. Whatever you do for a snowstorm, do for a heat wave.
• Stay cool. This is why God made air conditioning. But don’t go to extremes--find the right temperature setting for your body. Set to the highest temperature that still keeps you cool. Draw the blinds.
Vulnerability Times Seven
Extreme heat, and the inflammation it causes, also affects us in more specific ways that relate to seven “functional capacities”* we all share: fatigue, pain, sleep, cognition, ambulation, mood, and gut. These capacities are negatively affected by a heat wave, and that goes for everyone—but especially the young, the old, and the chronically ill.
• Fatigue may have little or nothing to do with the amount of sleep you get. You can have physical, mental, or emotional fatigue regardless of your sleep patterns—and inflammation affects fatigue too.
• Inflammation can bring on pain anywhere in your body. And when the barometric pressure changes, that creates swelling—in the joints, in the gut, and elsewhere.
• Heat waves disturb normal sleep patterns. The extra light in summer already affects circadian rhythms, and heat waves occur during the maximum light periods. Heat, humidity, and the inflammation they cause exacerbate the disruption.
• As for cognition, there is some science to back up the popular understanding that people don’t think as well in the heat. People have more trouble finding words, focusing, what we might call “staying on point.” And it affects the short-term memory. You can’t find the car. People also are more prone to make careless (and potentially deadly) mistakes while driving.
• Ambulation is affected by many things, notably, the inner ear. As we age, balance becomes more of an issue. Heat and inflammation can throw off balance, which affects walking and other types of movement, including going up and down stairs.
• Heat waves affect mood. In extreme heat and humidity, all of these functions can act upon each other negatively. And regardless of or in addition to these factors, the brain experiences inflammation on its own. All of this makes us irritable. We’re hot and uncomfortable, and we’re not thinking well.
• The gut is already having an inflammatory response, and the heat makes us want to eat less. We change our diet, not necessarily for the better, and we move and exercise less—all of which is a recipe for digestion problems.
Make It Easy on Yourself
You can manage your functional capacities during a heat wave without overwhelming yourself. Think about which capacities typically are your problem areas. Rank them, and work on one or two at a time. For example:
Sleep: Try to create a reasonable sleep schedule. Give yourself time to rest. Keep your room dark. Avoid overhead lighting. Give your brain the message that it’s time to wind down.
Cognition: Avoid mental activities that strain your brain. Minimize distractions so your brain can do the work it has to and then rest. Work for 40 minutes and then take a break. Calm your neurology.
Mood: Manage your mood by expecting the things that are likely to happen, so they won’t throttle you. Expect people to cut your off in traffic. Expect people to be cranky. Expect that you will be more emotional. If you’re vulnerable (and aren’t we all) to feeling low or anxious or unsettled, expect it and be ready to manage it.
*Fennell, P.A. (2012). The Chronic Illness Workbook: Strategies and Solutions for Taking Back Your Life. Third Edition. Albany, NY: Albany Health Management Publishing.