In 2013, neuroscientists reported one of the strangest case reports in the history of medicine: a man who claimed to be able to smell the weather. An approaching storm, he said, produced an almost unbearable odour of skunk excrement, mixed with onions. The scientists were at a loss to explain what could be causing these strange symptoms.
Most of us are thankfully lacking this rather unwelcome talent, but even subtle shifts in the atmosphere seem to correlate with changes in our bodies. While scientists have yet to confirm many of these proposed links, the evidence so far is intriguing. If true, it would mean everything from your risk of a heart attack to the sex of your unborn child may, to a greater or lesser extent, depend on the forecaster’s predictions.
Rain gives you rheumatism… maybe
Despite anecdotal reports that wet and windy conditions inflame the joints, the evidence is about as clear as a British summer. A review in 2011, looking at nine studies to date, concluded that there was no consistent effect of the weather on the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, the apparent link may just be a case of “confirmation bias”. If you already believe that rain brings pain, you are more likely to notice the rainy days where you feel discomfort, and ignore those when you feel fine.
Even so, it’s by no means a closed case and other studies disagree. Perhaps the confusion arises from the fact that it’s very difficult to take into account other factors – such as the clothes the patients were wearing, and whether the patients stayed in or out of doors.
Falling air pressure is a pain in the head
Feeling weighed down? That’s because there’s about a tonne of air pressing down on our heads at any one time. It sounds like a recipe for a headache – and for some people, it just might be. Kazuhito Kimoto at the Dokkyo Medical University in Japan and colleagues asked 28 migraine patients to keep a diary of their headaches for a whole year. Comparing their reports with data from a nearby weather station, he found that their pain often coincided with falling air pressure.
Although Kimoto’s team only studied a small group of participants, a second paper seemed to confirm the effect, finding that the sales of painkillers rise as the barometer drops. One reason could be that the falling air pressure disrupts the vestibular system – the cavity in our heads that helps us to keep balance – bringing about the dizzy spells, and eventually, migraine.
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