Are you grouchy, grumpy, or gloomy at this time of year? Irritable? Depressed, drowsy, tired? Maybe a headache? Your spirits sag? Or you suffer silently, your mind wanders, ideas elude you?
If so, you may have a case of spring fever, like Dorothy Parker, who kvetched: “Every year, back comes spring, with nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off and the ground all mucked up. . . .”
Does spring fever really exist, or is it an imaginary ailment? Does your body change its chemistry and rhythms?
In cool climates, late winter and spring seem to bring pronounced body fatigue. At the same time, resistance to infection, to intoxication, to trauma, to emotional upheaval is at its lowest. In the spring, a young man’s fancy may lightly turn to love, or convertibles, or baseball — but a family man’s duties turn heavily toward household chores that need doing . . . but are done reluctantly during spring fever season, if at all.
In one study over a 10-year period, blood samples were found to have their acid-alkaline balance shifted toward high relative blood acidity during April, spring fever time, when conceptions diminish and stillbirths and deaths in the population peak. Springtime suicides peak dramatically in Scandinavian countries.
You are most likely to be susceptible to spring fever (and to weather conditions in general) if you are slender, nervous, shy, anxious, female, and young. You are least likely to succumb to spring weather if you are male, stocky, calm, placid, extroverted, and older.
Landmark investigations by William F. Petersen, a pathologist, demonstrated that clinical symptoms, mental reactions, and abnormal behavior are conditioned by changing seasons and weather.
Our entire metabolism is built upon an adequate supply of oxygen, our most important external resource for survival. Take away food, and you can live for a week or more. Take away water, and you will survive for a few days. But take away air — and you will not live more than a few minutes. Air hunger is our strongest drive.
Indeed, the words “am” and “is” come from ancient the Sanskrit words asmi and bhu, meaning “to breathe” and “to grow.” Existence is breathing and growing. Air is so important that when in love, we “walk on air.” When rejected, he “gets the air.” If she’s superficial, she “puts on airs.” In confusion or uncertainty we are “up in the air.”
Brain tissue, muscle tissue, cells, membranes, organs, skin — all demand oxygen for survival. Oxygen from air furnishes us with energy during combustion (oxidation) through glucose, a fuel providing our muscle power.
After the passage of a cold front, when warm blood has departed from the body’s periphery it moves to our central organs and torso to conserve heat. Then the extremities are at a disadvantage and vital tissues may be oxygen-deprived.
Suppose one of your body organs is below par because of a local injury or fatigue after strain. A cold front would induce blood vessels to constrict, thereby denying blood and thus oxygen to the weak organ. Oxygen hunger may lead to pain, pressure, swelling, hydration, or acidosis. The medical complaint may pass. Tissues may return to normal, if unstressed further, within a few days.
But suppose late-winter or early-spring air masses with gyrating temperatures come along before the tissues re-equilibrate and return to normal. The passing weather fronts will register internally; migraine, colitis, arthritis, neuritis, and stomach ulcers are but a few examples. Your mild fatigue may develop into deep exhaustion. Your simple headache may blossom into a throbbing migraine. Your throat soreness may emerge as a full-blown hacking cough. Your blood chemistry may change. Your mildly dispirited mood may develop into depression.
Public health statistics also echo atmospheric temperature changes. Mental and physical disturbances, reproduction and death rates, psychotic admission rates, epileptic attacks, labor pains, cardiac deaths, tuberculosis, suicides, and other dysfunctions statistically mirror the organic rhythms of individuals. Passage of weather fronts constrict and dilate blood vessels, a reflex that regulates our body temperature, and these create biological tides both internally and in public health records.
Temperature extremes, heat and cold, must be compensated within the body. Reflected in symptoms major or minor, transient or protracted — below the radar or above — the body marshals an ingenious array of mechanisms to meet every change. The blood distribution changes, endocrine activity changes, physical and chemical constituents of body fluids change; mental reactivity, muscle ability, kidney performance, bone marrow and leukocytes, mucous membranes, sensory response, even the retina of the eye — all correlate with weather-front passages, especially during the spring. No wonder we may experience restlessness, vivid dreams, insomnia, nightmares, despondence, and spring fever. Our primeval biology responds. While our consciousness might ignore spring, fibers deep inside us unconsciously echo the air and sky.
If the physicians measure spring fever but do not understand it, then it is poets who — without measuring — comprehend our “inner weather” and spring fever. “I am what is around me,” wrote the poet Wallace Stevens. When Byron said, “I am always most religious on a sunshiny day,” he was referring to atmospheric intimacy. Shakespeare was acutely aware of “tides in the affairs of men” — possibly atmospheric tides — or what he called “skyey influences that importuned our creaturehood.” Weather-sensitivity.
These poets’ subconscious was so closely interwoven with their organic world, with their environment — emotional, physical, even thermal — that they became clearly conscious of it. They are called geniuses. And to the extent that we participate in spring fever, we experience a glimpse of our own genius.
Stephen Rosen is the author of “Weathering: How the Atmosphere Conditions Your Body, Your Mind, Your Moods — and Your Health.” He lives in East Hampton and New York.