Six Ways to Handle Summer Heat

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You feel more tired than usual. You have been short-tempered and maybe a little grumpy. You feel easily distracted and can’t concentrate on your work as well as you usually do.

Dog Days of Summer

Welcome to the Dog Days of Summer, a period of time that, depending on where you live, begins in July and ends in early September. Contrary to what you might think, summer’s dog days have nothing to do with our canine friends. The phrase came into use in ancient Rome and has to do with the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, which is also called the Dog Star. The Romans and other ancient cultures believed that that, at this time of year when Sirius rises and sets at the same time as the sun, its heat combines with the sun’s heat to make daytime temperatures hotter.

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Today we use the phrase Dog Days of Summer to mean a time when everything kind of slows down because of the heat and many of us feel sluggish. It makes sense that consistent afternoon temperatures in the 90’s and 100’s can make us uncomfortable, but heat can affect us in other ways.

Researchers have studied the affect temperature has on our moods and have found links between violent or aggressive behavior and heat waves. A 2013 University of California at Berkeley study, for example, analyzed 60 previous research studies on U.S. violent crime rates and violent behaviors, including lab simulations that examined police decisions of when to shoot. For every standard deviation of change in terms of warmer temperatures or more rainfall, occurrences of what the study termed “intergroup conflict, ” such as riots and civil wars, rose by 14 percent, while instances of “interpersonal violence,” such as rapes and domestic violence, increased by 4 percent.

Excessive heat curtails our outdoor activities, which can lead to a feeling of being trapped indoors, kind of like the “cabin fever” we get in the depths of winter. After suffering through a long, cold winter, we can feel cheated from enjoying the longer daylight and warmer temperatures of summer. In addition, when we are overheated, we can get dehydrated, which can affect how the brain functions.

Have you ever thought that you can’t tolerate the heat (or the cold) the way you used to when you were younger? It could be because you lived in a different place with a different climate. Biometeorologists, scientists who study weather’s impact on living organisms, have found that the human body can adapt to temperature changes over time. It is the sudden changes, be they a cold snap or a heat wave, that cause us trouble.

Six ways to cope with the summer heat

Here are six ways to cope with a heat wave and the fatigue that comes with it:

  • Try to get outside when you can. Plan your daily run or walk in the early morning or in the evening when it is cooler. If your schedule won’t allow you to be outside during the cooler hours, switch to a gym workout until it is cooler.
  • Stay hydrated. Keep a bottle of water handy throughout the day. Don’t wait until you feel thirsty. Symptoms of dehydration can include tiredness, headaches, infrequent urination and dark urine
  • Avoid making big decisions or big lifestyle changes during a heat wave. We tend to be more emotionally charged during heat waves, and you may not be thinking clearly.
  • Take a nap. Temperatures above 75 degrees have been shown to cause insomnia in many people. Even if you sleep in an air-conditioned room, a heat wave can affect your sleep cycle. Take a short nap during the day to refuel your energy.
  • Pay attention to your diet. It’s normal for your appetite to go down in extreme heat. Adjust your intake by eating smaller meals more frequently. Avoid heavy foods and opt for lighter fare, such as salads, fruits and cold pasta dishes. Foods that rich in potassium (such as broccoli, cantaloupe, potatoes, spinach, watermelon, sweet potatoes and mushrooms) can have a natural cooling effect on the body.
  • Dress in loose, light layers so you can be ready for temperature fluctuations between different times of day and between air-conditioned buildings and outdoors.

Finally, don’t overdo it. Your body’s cooling mechanisms are controlled in the brain by the hypothalamus. It works to keep your core body temperature within a certain range. When you exercise, receptors on your skin send a signal to the hypothalamus, and it activates your sweat glands and dilates your blood vessels to help release heat. An increase of blood flow to the surface of the skin also helps release heat. However, when you are in extreme heat, your body’s cooling system may not be able to keep up with demand. In a hot, humid environment, your sweat may not be able to evaporate, which makes it harder for your body to release heat and stay cool.

Summer heat puts more strain on your heart

In addition, working in extreme heat puts more strain on your heart. Since both your skin and your muscles need more blood flow during exercise, the two body systems can essentially compete with each other, causing increased body temperature and possibly heat-related illnesses that can be dangerous. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headache, weakness, fatigue, confusion, irritability and increased heart rate.

Weather influences us in ways we may not realize. Baseball pitchers are more likely to hit batters on hot days, and people are more likely to honk their horns at other drivers during a heat wave. But it isn’t just the heat. Fluctuations in barometric pressure have been shown to alter moods and to trigger headaches, and many studies have shown a link between low pressure and depression.

If there is one good thing about the weather, you can be sure it will change. “I’ve lived in good climate, and it bores the hell out of me,” John Steinbeck once wrote. “I like weather rather than climate.”

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