Can Winter Worsen Inflammation? How Winter Can Hurt—and Help?by Skye Sherman - January 10th, 2022
If you are familiar with the sometimes crippling pain caused by inflammation, you know how frustrating it can be for your pain to flare up. Anything that causes your pain to worsen or reawaken is a no-go in your book. Typically, doctors recommend alterations to diet, exercise, weight, and sleep in order to keep inflammation in check.
But what about factors you can’t control, like the weather? Can winter worsen inflammation or cause you undue pain? In this article, we examine whether winter can worsen inflammation and what you can do about it.
Winter’s effects on inflammation
It seems that whether or not winter affects inflammation depends on what type of inflammation or pain condition you have. For example, those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis are definitely prone to bouts of worse pain and flare-ups in the winter.
According to the Illinois Bone & Joint Institute, “With the holiday season underway, feelings of joy and happiness may be replaced with pain and stiffness for Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) patients. The pain and inflammation from RA, can dampen your holiday spirit and get in the way of winter festivities. Symptoms such as pain, swelling, stiffness, and fatigue can increase in the winter. But luckily there are steps to alleviate these symptoms.”
One doctor says this could be related to barometric pressure, or the weight of air molecules pressing down on you; winter’s cooler temperatures cause a drop in air pressure, which causes tissues to expand because air pressure is less and thus not pushing down as hard on the body.
The article states: “Drops in barometric pressure may cause tendons, muscles and the surrounding tissues to expand, leading to joint pain.”
But rheumatoid arthritis isn’t the only type of arthritis that can be aggravated by the colder months of the year. “Keep in mind that the drop in air pressure may affect other types of arthritis. ‘Osteoarthritis may flare as well during the winter months,’ Dr. Kothari says. … Dr. Kothari is board-certified in rheumatology and internal medicine.”
INTEGRIS Health adds more context: “Studies have shown that cold weather can affect both inflammatory and non-inflammatory arthritis. … Winter weather can be especially tough for those who suffer from arthritis, and there could be some truth to the old wives’ tale that aching joints can be an indicator of a change in weather. In fact, the Arthritis Foundation even cites studies that show lower barometric pressure caused more aches and pains for people in barometric pressure chambers.”
If you ever hear a senior citizen claiming that they can sense a storm coming because their arthritis pain is flaring up, well, they might just be right! Sometimes changes in air temperature and pressure really do create physical changes in the body that a person can sense. A spell of cold weather might just have the power to cause joints to swell and get inflamed, causing pain and stiffness in sufferers.
CreakyJoints adds, “Winter even seems to affect us down to our DNA. According to one 2015 study, genes that promote inflammation are increased in winter, while genes that suppress inflammation are simultaneously decreased in the winter.”
If winter is worsening your inflammation, what can you do about it? One option is pretty obvious: Layer up! Keeping yourself warm and cozy can help to relieve stiff joints and soothe your overall pain levels during the ice-cold winter months. Curling up by a fire with a warm book may be just the treatment you need.
Contributing factors to inflammation
Winter isn’t the only thing connected to inflammation. According to Cleveland Clinic, “The most common reasons for chronic inflammation include:
● Autoimmune disorders, such as lupus, where your body attacks healthy tissue.
● Exposure to toxins, like pollution or industrial chemicals.
● Untreated acute inflammation, such as from an infection or injury.”
However, there are also important lifestyle factors to take into account. As the site explains, “You may be more likely to develop chronic inflammation if you:
● Drink alcohol in excess.
● Have a high body mass index (BMI) that falls within the ranges for obesity, unless that is a result of being very muscular.
● Exercise at your maximum intensity too frequently, or you don’t exercise enough.
● Experience chronic stress.
That’s right: The inflammation in your body may be partially your fault (and partially controllable by you, at least to a degree). Note that this is not the case with certain medical conditions, but it is the case in some situations.
Sugar is another major contributing factor to inflammation (and that’s the least of refined sugar’s evils!). Limit your sugar intake and up your intake of olive oil, vegetables, tomatoes, and oily fish if you want your diet to help kick your inflammation to the curb. Diet can have a major impact on arthritis, inflammation, and other conditions, such as psoriasis.
You need to make sure you are at a healthy weight, not drinking too much alcohol, and not smoking if you want to decrease or lessen your overall inflammation levels. You should also take care to limit your stress levels and have a healthy exercise regimen if you want to keep inflammation at bay.
Winter health fusion: Can winter actually increase your health?
While winter can have some negative effects on your health and inflammation levels, it’s not all bad. Believe it or not, winter can actually have some surprising health benefits.
According to MSN, cold weather can boost your brain: “Colder temperatures can help you think more clearly. A 2017 study from Stanford University found that people perform some cognitive tasks, such as making decisions and staying calm, with more control when the thermostat drops—essentially, they become less impulsive.
“Research has also shown that people are less inclined to tackle complex tasks in the summer than in the winter—and for good reason. The brain requires glucose to function, but the body uses more of it when it’s warm in order to keep its temperature down, leaving less fuel for reasoning and recall.”
That’s right: You may actually think better in the wintertime! Of course, this doesn’t have quite the same effect for those who suffer from seasonal depression.
There’s another benefit you might want to be aware of if you are looking to lose weight. Cold weather actually burns calories because your body has to work harder to maintain your warm core temperature and humidify the air you breathe. So if you are hoping to shed a few pounds (which can also improve inflammation levels), then keep that in mind the next time you’re cursing the cold!
Believe it or not, winter can also help diabetics. “Exposure to mild cold weather can help diabetic people by activating their ‘brown fat’—tissue used to produce heat. This, in turn, helps absorb excess glucose in the blood. ‘Repeated cold exposure will lead to improved insulin sensitivity, even for people who aren’t diabetic,’ says Denis Blondin, a researcher at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Sherbrooke in Quebec.”
What’s more, a 2017 study from the University of Toronto showed that “pregnant women exposed to cold outdoor air temperatures were less likely to develop gestational diabetes than those in warmer climates.” Cold weather can also provide allergy relief, longer and more restful sleep, heart-strengthening benefits, and even prevent infections.
As you can see, there are a lot of perks to winter even if it’s not your favorite season for a variety of reasons. It may cause inflammation to flare up, but its perks may outweigh this downside.