Have you ever wondered if cold weather affects brain performance? Some find winter weather invigorating. To them, the cold is energizing, making them sharp and at the top of their game. For others, it’s completely different. It makes them tired and sluggish. Cold weather aside, the shorter, cloud-filled days can induce seasonal depression.
Whether you’re a cold weather enthusiast or prefer your chilly days bundled up inside, research has been exploring if weather affects the way the brain works. Is the invigoration simply your perception? Or is there something else at play? They’ve found some surprising results.
Cold And The Brain
It’s important to clarify that even though you put a hat on your head to stay warm, the brain doesn’t actually feel cold. Your skull and layers of protective tissue made up of the meninges and cerebrospinal fluid act as an insular heating system. Even if your head feels cold, your brain is warm. So, what is it about cold weather that produces either sluggish thinking or invigorated creativity?
There’s a pervasive belief in society that cold weather slows you down. Some of this belief stems from comparing human behavior to similarities in hibernating species. The cold makes your fingers and limbs slower, so it makes sense that your entire body reacts in the same way. But research is finding that this isn’t true. At least, not entirely.
In cognitive performance tests focusing on math skills and verbal tests, men performed better at cooler temperatures. However, the primary indicator of whether someone would perform cognitively better or worse was if they were comfortable. Comfort is one of the most important factors in cognitive performance. There are ways you can increase your comfort levels with the cold, and decrease the effect it has on you. Listen to our podcast episode with Wim Hof for more on that.
But cold weather does impact one key area in your body, which affects your brain.
Our Brain and Glucose
One key finding in cold weather studies is how cold weather changes glucose production. Again, while your brain doesn’t feel cold, keeping your body warm requires more energy. Glucose is your brain’s primary energy source. If you don’t increase the amount of glucose levels in your body to both maintain temperature and feed your brain, the result can be sluggish thinking and slower cognitive performance. Remember that your brain uses up to 20% of your total energy every day. If your body starts using more of that energy to stay warm, your brain will struggle to remain sharp, and cognitive functioning will slow down.
When your body temperature struggles to regulate, it can kick the thyroid into hyper-drive. The thyroid is important in maintaining your mood, weight, and energy levels. If lack of glucose causes your thyroid to work overtime, it can overproduce hormones trying to find the right balance, and this can lead to brain fog and feeling overly tired. Unfortunately, because this can also induce weight gain, it can trigger you to eat less, which only makes the problem worse.
In order to produce glucose, it’s essential to eat the right foods in the right amounts. Otherwise, your entire body can become unbalanced. This explains why you might crave heartier meals in the colder months. Your body and brain need the extra energy to function.
Other Key Factors
Researchers have also been studying the implications of winter and mental health, primarily as it relates to Seasonal Affective Disorder or seasonal depression. Almost one-fourth of the population will suffer symptoms of this disorder in their lives.
Seasonal depression has less to do with the weather and more to do with decreased exposure to sunlight, which leads to lower levels of Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps keep you healthy, but it also maintains the balance in your neurochemical levels of important mood hormones like serotonin and dopamine. Drops in these chemicals can cause depression and anxiety, both of which interfere with your cognitive functioning.
Lack of sunlight also impacts your circadian rhythms. With less of the blue light sun rays that stimulate cortisol production, the hormone that tells your brain and body to wake up and get moving, you can begin producing too much melatonin instead. Too much melatonin can lead to you feeling groggy throughout the day. If it’s too cold to exercise outside in the morning, you can help balance your circadian rhythm by adding a sunlamp to your desk.
When combined, this can make it seem like the cold weather is causing you to have slower reaction times, difficulty thinking, increased sleep, and other behavioral symptoms.
Whether you like cold weather or not is a personal preference. Your brain and body may function differently, but the temperature itself does not have a direct impact on the brain. It’s important to understand what causes negative reactions from the cold, however, and adjust both your nutrition, sleep, and exercise routines to help balance your increased energy needs.
Cold is a state of mind. If you’re taking care of your body’s needs, you can use the cold to your advantage through cold therapy training. No matter what the weather brings, you can take measures to ensure that you stay happy, healthy, and productive throughout the year.
For more on how to use cold to your brain advantage, check out our YouTube episode with Wim “The Iceman” Hof: