5 Ways Extremely Cold Weather Can Affect Your Brain

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As climate change makes its mark on the earth, scientists say that episodes of extreme cold, like the past week's polar vortex in the U.S., may only become more common. These extreme weather events can be incredibly dangerous. Beyond the obvious physical and psychological effects of exposure to extreme cold, it can also affect our neurological health. Our brains are warmth-loving organs that spend a lot of time bathed in hot blood, so it stands to reason that perhaps exposure to seriously cold temperatures isn't exactly their favorite thing. While the jury remains out on whether cold temperatures in general are bad for the brain, it's pretty clear that extreme, polar-vortex, boiling-water-freezing-in-seconds cold has serious impacts on your brain and the nerves throughout your body.

The brain may be cushioned from the worst of the cold weather by its location, but that doesn't mean that the temperature effects can't reach it in various ways. Extremely cold weather on its own can induce strange behaviors, stressful responses and nerve damage, while being cooped up indoors to survive the onslaught of yet another snow storm also has neurological consequences. The lesson? You need to take care of your brain as much as you do your body when temperatures drop way below zero.

1. Hypothermia Can Cause Mental Confusion & Disorientation

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A little bit of cold may be good for the brain. CNN reported in 2016 that a series of studies showed brain response time and focus improved during winter months. However, it's not clear whether that's due to cooler weather or other environmental factors that come with the winter season. When it comes to cold, though, one thing is clear: too much of it is extremely bad for the brain's functioning.

Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can warm itself, and as your body cools, organs that depend on warm blood begin to lose their functionality. That includes the brain. Confusion is a noted symptom of advanced hypothermia, which is why it's so dangerous to be out in extreme cold. That mental confusion also means that it's hard for people with serious hypothermia to realize what's happening to them.

2. Extreme Cold Can Irritate Damaged Nerves

Extreme cold and the nervous system aren't necessarily great buddies. If you have damaged nerves because of an injury or an underlying condition — known as neuropathy — being exposed to serious cold can make them send pain signals to your brain even if there's nothing actually painful happening. "Prolonged exposure to the cold causes the body to slow blood circulation to the hands and feet in an effort to preserve the body’s core temperature. The reduced blood flow can intensify neuropathy symptoms and potentially cause further damage to already affected peripheral nerves," psychotherapist Caroline Edlund explained for Cancer Care.

Neuropathy in serious cold can be really confusing. If you have damaged nerves, particularly in your hands or feet, you may experience sensations of cold when you aren't actually freezing, because the nerves are damaged and sending the wrong signals. So extreme cold can make your brain believe you're in agonizing pain — or damage the nerves so much you stop feeling anything altogether.

3. In Some Brains, The Stress Response To Cold Can be Euphoria

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One man who wouldn't be bothered by the polar vortex is Wim Hof, known as the "Ice Man," who is famous for feats in which he exposes himself to extreme cold without suffering any apparent effects. Joshuah Rapp Learn for Smithsonian Magazine reported in 2018 that a study had been done on Hof to understand why he didn't seem bothered by cold at all, and the answer lay in his brain.

Hof, it seems, is able to induce a stress response neurologically that turns his body's normal responses to cold into euphoria and induces the production of natural painkillers in his blood. "These components can inhibit the signals responsible for telling your body you are feeling pain or cold, and trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin," wrote Rapp Learn. This isn't an unknown phenomenon; monks who live in cold environments in Eastern Tibet have been proven to raise their inner body temperature using meditation, to survive extreme temperatures. By all accounts, though, this technique is extremely difficult and only possible with years of practice.

4. Exposure Can Trigger A Cold-Stimulus Headache

Ever had a brain freeze from eating ice cream too fast? You can also get one from sudden exposure to very cold conditions. The "brain freeze" phenomenon doesn't only have to do with cold food; it's called a cold-stimulus headache and can also be prompted by diving into cold water or inhaling freezing air too fast. Science is not entirely sure what causes the sudden, stabbing pain of the brain freeze headache, but scientists have some ideas. One study in 2017 found that brain freeze headaches are stimulated by the same area of the brain, the sphenolopalatine ganglion, that causes migraines and other serious headaches. It's even been suggested that brain freeze headaches might help alleviate migraines. Whatever the mechanism, brain freeze headaches can be seriously debilitating, even if they pass reasonably quickly.

5. Being Trapped Inside Causes Your Stress Response To Hike

It's not just the cold that can transform the brain — it's what happens in response to it. Being trapped indoors can indeed induce "cabin fever"; a famous study in 1984 in Minnesota found that being cooped up indoors can produce depression, irritation and dissatisfaction.

These responses can be explained by various things, but one element, explained Amanda Mull at the Atlantic in January 2019, is stress, which prompts the production of the hormone cortisol. "Multiple studies have found that average seasonal cortisol levels are highest in winter. Confinement — even if other people are present — can be very stressful, too," she wrote. If you find the concept of being indoors for more than a day or two very upsetting, cortisol spiking in your brain is likely to blame.

Going outside in freezing cold weather isn't a great idea for multiple reasons. Chief among them is that it's threatening to your health — for your brain and your nervous system as much as for your fingers and toes. Stay safe and warm this winter.