By Julia Gumm
Boy, things are heating up here in the northern hemisphere. In my neck of the woods, we recently saw heat indexes in the high 100’s, accomplished in part by relative humidity hovering around 90%. In keeping with the theme of high numbers, my weight scaled up as well. Going with the flow, I guess.
Does this happen to any of you? Heat and humidity set in and suddenly you’re retaining so much water you look like you’re seven months pregnant? Because it happens to me. Along with the belly, I experience swelling in my fingers, knees and any place in my back that was giving me mild trouble prior to the change in weather suddenly becomes a debilitating injury of dramatic proportions. It seems there’s an uptick of inflammation in the whole body, as a work out that last week suited me just fine now requires three agonizing days of recovery. What gives?
I’ve combed for a solid answer on this phenomenon year after year and have come up basically empty handed. What I do find are a lot of people asking the same questions: Can humidity cause weight gain? Can humidity cause water retention? Does humidity increase inflammation? Does humidity increase the likelihood of asthma attacks? IBS symptoms? Fibro(myalgia) flares?
For me and my irritable bowel’s money, I’d go with yes.
Firstly, it appears that the body does indeed retain quite a bit of fluid during bouts of high heat and humidity. Increased temperatures and water in the air have the effect of rendering the body’s cooling mechanism, sweating, useless. Instead of evaporating off the skin, the sweat pitifully drips off your nose, shamefully unable to do it’s job. So you stay hot. And the hotter you are, the more water you’ll retain. According to John Castellani, a researcher in the Thermal & Mountain Medicine Division of the U.S. Army’s Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, it’s very normal to gain several pounds of water weight during the summer months.
Bloating isn’t just a visual nuisance, it causes physical discomfort as well. Hauling around several more pounds of water weight in the abdomen is no picnic, and for sufferers of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, it’s a whole lot worse. The added pressure of increased abdominal dystension can aggravate feelings of discomfort, and there are many who feel that the humidity itself causes a flare up in symptoms like constipation. That makes sense to me, because when the body is dehydrated it pulls fluids into the tissues, which may cause a decrease in available water in the bowels.
Studies have shown that adequate levels of serotonin present in the gut are necessary to keep intestinal inflammation at bay. Under the increased atmospheric pressure of warmer, wetter weather systems, serotonin levels decrease. This is a possible cause of weather related migraines, aches and pains, and increased symptoms of bowel inflammation.
I’ve only begun to scratch the surface on this subject. There’s so much that goes into it, I don’t feel comfortable telling y’all that I know The Reason Why so many of us experience an increase in inflammatory conditions during hot, humid weather. In fact, it looks like no one knows why exactly, beyond the obvious stuff like how changes in air pressure affect our joints. Anyone with an old injury can attest to that. There are many theories and to be honest, each person varies so there probably isn’t any one simple answer. But it seems many of us are subject to some physical fluctuations that come and go with the weather, and being aware of how your body reacts in various scenarios can give you a lot of peace of mind when suddenly you’re so bloated you can’t even see your swollen feet.
There are also some strategies you can employ to mitigate these symptoms.
Reducing inflammatory foods from the diet can’t hurt, so stay away from offenders like omega 6 laden seed oils. These oils are found in just about every processed food on the market, as well as any deep fried restaurant foods. Choose mostly saturated fats like butter, coconut or palm oils for cooking and frying, and monounsaturated olive or avocado oils for dipping and salads.
Stress contributes to inflammation, so be sure to relax this summer. Often people think they’re “relaxing” by surfing the internet. On the contrary, processing a constant stream of information via a glowing screen is anything but relaxing. It keeps your sympathetic nervous system on it’s toes, and you’ll spend a lot of time sitting on your ass to do it. Today we are subject to more information on a daily basis than we could have dreamed possible a mere ten years ago. I mean, really. Who knew that I could spend a quantifiable amount of time each day studying pictures of high school classmate’s meals? This summer, when you relax, actually relax. Be choosy about what you devote your attention to, and leave the gadgets at home when you go poolside.
Besides its contribution to inflammation, stress and anxiety can specifically cause belly bloat- reasons being shallow breathing impeding lymphatic flow, mild hyperventilation drawing air into the stomach or slowed digestion. When you are on high alert, the body halts movement in the GI tract, instead choosing to divert its energy into sweaty palms, dilated pupils, rapid heartbeat and tense muscles. Joy of joys. Deep breathing, the kind where the belly rises with air, not the chest, is helpful because it relaxes the sympathetic nervous system and encourages the proper flow of lymphatic fluid. Lymph needs your conscious participation in getting it flowing, as it has no built in pump, like the blood has the heart. Stagnant lymph can collect in the abdomen and legs, creating swelling. Besides deep breathing, getting enough exercise is great for moving the lymph as well. Jumping on a trampoline or rebounder is one of the best things you can do for your lymph, and the most fun!
Remain hydrated. I used to take diuretics to combat the dreaded hot weather bloat, but this only provides temporary relief of symptoms and can dangerously dehydrate you. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids, and just as important, keep your electrolytes and minerals up. The less your body feels there is a hydration emergency, the less bloated you will be.
Anti-inflammatories like cats claw, ginger, tart cherries, aloe vera juice and turmeric may offer relief from digestive, muscular, and joint aches and pains.
Finally, try and allow yourself to acclimate to the heat. It’s easy to run inside and sit in the air conditioning, and no doubt that’s what’s best on dangerously hot days and for the elderly. But for healthy people, allowing your body to get used to the heat is a much better strategy for proper adjustment and relative comfort. Using fans relieves discomfort by creating a “wind chill” effect that evaporates sweat without artificially lowering air temperature.
So if you catch your reflection in the pool mid-belly flop and mistake yourself for Shamu, don’t panic. The heat can do funny things to ya. Happy Summer.