For a week now, we have officially been experiencing autumn. The nights are longer than the days, extending their dark dominion by two and a half minutes every 24 hours. The air is turning cooler. Leaves and grasses are showing hints of yellow. We’ve even found ourselves reaching for a sweater occasionally, unthinkable a month ago.
This is a good development, isn’t it? Everyone is happy to say goodbye to long, hot, sticky summer days, aren’t they?
Well, yes and no. For many of us, the onset of autumn means feeling worse, not better. To begin with, there’s the inexplicable feeling of late-September melancholy that artists have exploited for centuries. The 18th-century poet Ranko captured this aspect of the season perfectly when he wrote, around the time of the yearly “higan” observances, “The paper lanterns on the graves are torn/ By heavy dew in the chill autumn dawn.” It’s a sad time, the poet suggests, because everywhere we look in the fall we see auguries of death: cold, darkness and the decay that goes hand in hand with ripeness.
But September gloom is not all symbolic. Autumn also brings actual, measurable ailments that can rival those of spring in the misery they cause: asthma, colds, certain allergies and, according to several recent studies, ulcer flareups, a flurry of headaches and an increase in lethargy and physical malaise. Some scientists have been wondering why this is so. They are called biometeorologists, and it is their job to “study the interactions between atmospheric processes and living organisms.” As far as we humans are concerned, that means roughly “figuring out how the weather affects our health.”
For some afflictions, this is not rocket science. Some allergies spike in the fall because pollen counts for certain plants go up at that time of year. It’s hardly illogical to expect an increase in colds and coughs with people returning to schools and offices after August vacations, often in new places teeming with unfamiliar bugs. It gets more complicated when it comes to asthma and ulcers and sudden inexplicable fatigue. But the biometeorologists argue that attributing physical ills to the weather is more than just an “old-wives’ approach.” It’s good science.
Here are some examples of conclusions derived from studies carried out recently in the United States and Europe. Cold weather can bring on sickness, not because we “catch a chill,” as our grandmothers used to say, but because wind-driven cold fronts sweeping in from the north stir up the residues of summer molds, causing allergic reactions and other respiratory complications. The first blasts of cooler air can also stress fragile airways, triggering breathing crises in vulnerable groups. Lightning, which frequently accompanies an arriving cold front, has been linked to increases in ground-level ozone, that bane of asthma sufferers.
And then there’s seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, the much-discussed but not very well understood depressive malady that has been directly linked to changes in the duration and quality of autumn and winter light. Neurologists and psychiatrists have long recognized that SAD is a real, not an imagined, condition. (It peaks in the Northern Hemisphere in September, when daylight shrinks fastest, for example. And studies have shown that the farther north people live, the more likely they are to be affected by SAD.) Biometeorologists would argue that this only supports their core assumption: The whole package of phenomena that we classify as “weather” — barometric pressure, heat, cold, rain, wind, you name it — drastically affects how we feel, both physically and mentally.
Thus, if you feel indisposed in autumn, it might actually be autumn that is the problem. This is not to say that it is the only seasonal culprit. Spring is the other great tormentor, and summer and winter bring ills of their own. The point is the perception of a causal relationship between weather and health. If such a relationship seems obvious, consider this. Although biometeorological interpretations of illness have been around, in their modern form, for decades, they are only now beginning to gain broad acceptance in medical circles. To some, they still smack of folk beliefs or village medicine.
For those who suffer from seasonal disorders, the debate is clearly important, affecting as it does decisions about treatment. Are drugs always appropriate, for instance? For others, though, it may be enough to note, yet again, how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Isn’t biometeorology just a new name for an old insight? Think of Ranko’s near-contemporary, Ryokan, who one long-ago autumn wrote this poem: “The monk Ryokan, whose tonsured stubble grays,/ Feels sorry for himself on rainy days.” We knew it all along. Those melancholy old poets were really victims of SAD.
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