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Sunshine Brings Good Health

Weather fluctuations can have subtle and dangerous effects on your health, including a small increased risk of stroke, cancer or mental illness.

After looking at 3,289 first-time stroke sufferers in Dijon, France, researchers found there were fewer strokes in warmer months and more strokes overall when there was a drop in temperature five days beforehand. French neurologist Dominique Minier says the underlying mechanisms are not clear, but theorizes that temperature drops may affect the way that blood clots, increasing stroke risk.

Mental health may be effected by the weather too. Too little sun during winter months can lead to depression in some people. Now we know that our brains can be influenced by weather before we even leave the womb.

There have been about 100 studies done around the world finding that schizophrenics are more likely to be born in certain months of the year. Dennis Kinney, director of the genetics laboratory at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. says, "It's probably one of the most widely replicated findings in terms of risk factors. There was a very striking increased risk of schizophrenia associated with colder month birth, but there is also a tendency for people born in southern states to be more likely to develop schizophrenia if they were born in hot, sultry months."

Also associated with an increased risk of schizophrenia are severe and unexpected storms, like tornadoes that occur in unusual locations. It appears that physiological stress placed on the developing fetus is the reason. "There is pretty good evidence that extreme weather, either very cold or very hot, is stressful to people's systems," says Kinney. "Those extremes in temperature may be hard on a fetus or a newborn infant. They may put more stress on their systems and increase the risk of brain development going slightly awry." Despite this, Kinney says the overall risk of developing schizophrenia remains low, and these factors increase the risk only about two percent.

Weather-related disorders, ranging from allergies to strokes, may be explained by the effect of temperature fluctuations on the body. "What ties a lot of these things together is that the immune system is acting abnormally in response to these exposures and triggering allergic responses, or they can trigger inflammation," says Dr. Gary Oberg, of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine. "And inflammation is a key component of many kinds of diseases such as strokes and heart attacks."

Additionally, severe weather drives people indoors, and that puts people in closer contact with each other, exposing them to cold and flu bugs and breathing more recycled air. These factors can contribute to increased illness and death in susceptible individuals.

People who live in sunny climates have a reduced risk of dying from several types of cancer, although the risk of skin cancer is higher.

Dr. Michal Freedman, of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, studied death certificates from 24 American states between 1984 and 1995 and assessed the impact of residential and occupational exposure to sunlight on the risk of dying from breast, ovarian, colon, prostate or skin cancer. He found that people who worked outside had a reduced risk of getting these cancers, apart from skin cancer.

While the researchers were not clear how sunshine might protect against cancer, experiments have shown that vitamin D, made by the body in response to sunlight, may retard the speed of cell division in breast and colon cancer cells.

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