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Health in the Heat

The past several weeks have been mild chaos at my place. From the AC not working, to losing drinking water several times, to areas of the house randomly without electricity, it's been a "fun" intro to summer at my hobbit hut.

Luckily, I am surrounded with absolutely wonderful people -- including my landlady, family, and my significant other -- who have shown up for support in offering assistance throughout the heat.

Even with this support and knowing that things will get fixed in their own time, I found myself slightly more irritable the past week. But more significantly, I noticed I was becoming more fatigued -- I was sleeping in a lot, I became sluggish and lethargic outside and inside, and my brain felt like it wasn't firing very well.

It took a while, but I then realized that the heat was getting to me. Not only was my body just sort of "quitting" on doing much, my sleep was disrupted because it was so warm in my room, and my mind was simply exhausted.

If you, too, have been feeling a little on edge from the relentless heat, you're not alone. According to the American Psychiatric Association on extreme heat and mental health conditions, extensive heat contributes to irritability, anxiety, mood changes, aggression, impaired memory, decreased attention and reaction times, as well as sleep difficulties like insomnia and inability to reach deep sleep stages (which help promote feelings of restfulness and body/brain recovery). Ask any emergency department worker and they'll tell you summer and heat brings out aggression, increased violent crimes, and fatal accidents. Pair that with a full moon and you'll have a full emergency room (although most statistics don't back this up, ask any doctor, nurse, EMT, or tech, and they'll tell you otherwise).

Because excessive and extreme heat tends to bring out irritability and mood disruptions in people, it's important to tend not only to our physical health, but also our mental health, so we can "keep our cool" and not make any rash decisions. Having coping skills and finding ways to feel safe and secure during these times of high temperatures is vital. While we have not yet "technically" entered summer, it has been hot hot hot. We have many days ahead of us to deal with the heat, so let's jump in and talk about physical and mental health during heatwaves.

One of the most important things you can do for your mental health during lengthy heat runs is to find ways to physically become more comfortable. According to Climate Psychiatry Alliance, whether it's wearing looser, cotton clothing; cooling down with cool showers or damp washcloths that you keep in the fridge; or being sure to replenish your electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, etc) if you are sweating a lot, it's important to take care of your physical well-being in order to optimize your mental health during heat waves.

Follow these helpful tips for optimal support during high heat days:

  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine -- These affect your heart's pumping abilities as well as your body's ability to regulate heat and tolerate heat stress.

  • Remember or set reminders to take medications as prescribed -- Excessive heat or prolonged exposure to heat can decrease your working memory and concentration and lead to forgetfulness.

  • Avoid making big-life decisions in the heat -- Because heat affects your memory and mood, making important life-altering decisions are best to juggle and handle until you are in a comfortable situation again. If you have been enduring the heat for a while in the day, wait until you have had a few hours of reprieve before making any final judgment calls. This may also include arguments/decision making with your significant other, financial decisions, etc.

  • Wear loose-fitted, cotton clothing -- Although most exercise gear is made of stretchy fabrics, they are essentially made of plastics, and are not as breathable as cotton. Having fabrics that are loose to your skin will allow air to move through and touch your skin, having a better chance of cooling you down and letting you sweat more comfortably.

  • Keep the area where you sleep as cool and comfortable as possible -- With a comfortable temperature in your bedroom, you are less likely to wake many times during the night, therefore able to sink into the deep sleep needed for physical and mental recovery.

  • Stay hydrated and add electrolytes if you sweat a lot -- Replenishing your electrolytes is key during high-sweating times. Electrolytes help your muscles, heart, kidneys, blood vessels, brain, and other vital organs do their jobs. If you have medical conditions, talk with your doctor or pharmacist to ensure you are safe to take electrolytes (and their dosages) with medications and/or medical conditions.

  • Room temperature water will hydrate you faster -- It's tempting to drink ice cold water on extremely hot days, and you definitely can! But room temperature water is best to keep you hydrated faster as it doesn't have to work as hard inside your body to adjust to the right temperature.

  • Check your meds -- Effectiveness of certain medications such as mood stabilizers and antipsychotics can be altered with excess sweating and exposure to heat. Ask your physician the best way to support the effectiveness of your meds if you know you'll be enduring heat for an extended amount of time. Other meds might cause you to sweat more, such as inhalers, diabetes medications, NSAIDS, opioids and so forth, so be sure to rehydrate yourself more while on these meds.

  • Have a Heat Safe Buddy -- If you are prone to heat complications or are in a position where your work requires you to be outside during the heat, find someone you trust for support to check on you and offer help as needed with a set a plan in place.

  • Avoid working or being active in the direct sun if you can -- If you have a job outside, this is obviously more difficult, but if you enjoy recreational activities, see if you can alter the time of day you partake in them to earlier morning or later evening to avoid direct overhead exposure to the sun. If you are in the sun, wear a wide-brimmed had to limit exposure to the direct sun.

  • Take many small breaks if you work outside -- I know you want to just get the work done as quickly as possible so you're working harder and faster, but this can be detrimental to your body. Take many short breaks in the day to cool off and rehydrate if your job includes being outside. Your kidneys, brain, and heart will thank you.

  • Don't ignore signs of heat exhaustion! -- If you feel weak, are getting muscle cramps and headaches, or are suddenly fatigued, stop what you're doing and find a cool place to sit, rest, drink water/rehydration drink, remove tight clothing like socks, jackets, or bras, and cool your skin down with a cool, damp cloth if you have one.

If you are unable to live in a place with cooling, see if you can borrow a window air unit for your bedroom, make a low-budget air conditioner (many You-Tube tutorials), or find public places during the day with cooling to take the bite out of the heat. Unfortunately our unhoused people suffer greatly with the heat. If you find yourself wanting to help others in this demographic, donating to local shelters loose clothing, water, food, and cooling mechanisms can be of great help to those in need.

Every creature is affected by the heat, so let's not forget the health of our beloved pets in these high temperatures. Here are some helpful reminders:

  • Cool spaces -- Our pets need to have safe and cool places, just like we do. Be sure to have a cool room indoors for the fur creatures who need it.

  • Cool your dog off starting at their toes -- Dogs sweat through their feet, so be sure to cool them off with a cool washcloth or low-filled tub of cool water for their feet and be sure to bring plenty of water with you for their walks. Do not cool them down by wetting their fur on their backs as that will trap the moisture in and cause them to heat up even more.

  • Keep an eye on how they pant -- A dog that is panting with a tongue straight out is fine, but to the side means the dog is in distress and needs to be cooled as soon as possible.

  • Walk your pet on the grass -- If your pet likes to go for strolls, try to steer them to walk them on the grass instead of the asphalt, as their pads may get burned easily on the roads and sidewalks.

  • Keep water dishes out of the sun -- If you have a pet that wanders from inside to outside, keep their water and food dishes completely out of the sun. The metal or plastic in the bowl gets extremely hot in the sun leading to uncomfortable temperatures for their drinking water and eating.

  • Fill their water dishes with plenty of cool water -- whether it's inside or outside, keep their water dishes full of cool water at all times so they have access to drink whenever they need it.

  • Shade outside -- If your pet likes going outside, be sure to have a safe area in the shade for your animal to rest in. Be reminded that most fully enclosed dog houses often trap heat inside them, so an area with open sides for breezes to come through is usually best.

  • Keep an eye on your pets around deeper water -- Don't leave your animals unattended around pools or other deeper water. Not all animals are great swimmers and can easily fall into ground-level pools and ponds.

For other helpful pet information for summer safety for your pets and how to determine if your pet is in distress, visit RedCross' article on how to keep your pets safe during the heat.

Now that we are entering the first stages of summer, I invite you to keep this article tagged for easy access to tips next time you are feeling overwhelmed with the summer heat. If you need to cool down even more with a little bodywork or body-wise coaching, we can help you find more ways suited to your needs to help you feel good in your body and support your mind during the heatwaves.

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