There’s an old saying that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, meaning that it’s rare for a difficult situation to be bad for everyone. I think we can all agree that the recent spate of violent tornadoes across the U.S. this spring qualifies as a genuinely tragic ill wind.
Seasonal winds that last for days or weeks on end may not be especially destructive, but they can do a lot more than just wreck our hairdo – they have profound effects on our mood. References to “evil” or “devil” winds can be found in ancient documents and oral traditions from regions around the globe, and include tales of persistent winds driving people mad. Long periods of wind can occur anywhere, but annual tempests in some regions have earned special names.
East of the Rocky Mountains in Washington and Oregon, warm, dry Chinook winds occur any time from late fall through early spring. They range from 40 miles per hour to in excess of 80 mph, and can last from several hours up to a few days. Quite often they cause large temperature spikes within just a few hours. Southern California endures violent Santa Ana winds, usually between October and January.
Italy suffers through the Sirocco, while the Khamsin (called the Sharav in Israel) afflicts North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Western Europe perseveres through the Foehn; southern France has its Mistral wind, and the Zonda roars through the Argentine Andes.
Bad-hair days might be a personal frustration, but bad-air days can send the population of a whole region into a tailspin. By bad air I don’t mean urban smog, although that certainly merits an article, if not an actual solution. Under certain weather conditions, air becomes laden with positively charged ions. This is not a plus, however.
Positive ions are always around, but in blustery conditions, especially when humidity is low and temperatures moderate to high, they become over-abundant. It turns out that positive ions can negatively affect our mental and emotional well-being.
For a long time, much of the scientific world dismissed regional tales of depression, headaches, violent behavior, and other havoc wrought by gusty weather as folklore. Although solid research on the human-health effects of wind dates back to the late 1960s in Israel, peer-reviewed papers began appearing in greater numbers in scientific journals starting around 1980. Since then, studies continue to bolster the concept that there are physical and psychological consequences of bad air.
When the wind’s energy strips away negatively-charged electrons from charge-neutral molecules such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen, it changes them into positive ions. These charged particles can do odd things. Science has not been able to explain exactly why too many positive ions in the air are a negative for us, but it has confirmed that the effect is 100 percent measurable and real.
For instance, a 1981 Israeli study found that during the Sharav, up to 30 percent of Israelis fall ill with migraines, irritability, respiratory symptoms, and other wind-induced effects. A report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Dr. Jonathan M. Charry of Rockefeller University and Dr. Frank B.W. Hawkinshire of N.Y.U. stated that positive ions increased tension, absent-mindedness, fatigue, and irritability. A surfeit of positive ions also delays reaction time, which certainly has a bearing on auto mishaps.
A 2012 case study of a patient with anxiety disorder concluded that, even after adjusting for other weather variables, wind direction had a notable effect on mental health. In particular, a southeasterly wind tended to raise anxiety and lower energy levels. In other words, it blew no good.
Some health effects in weather-afflicted people can mimic microbial infections. A 1983 Austrian study found that 2,400 of 3,000 subjects with wind-related malaise had above-normal blood sedimentation rates. An elevated blood-sedimentation rate is one marker of infection. Other findings included distinctly lower blood levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feeling well.
Anecdotally, a good friend who lives in southern France told me about his neighbor who becomes largely disabled by seasonal winds there. Until the Mistral settles down, this person is too disoriented to drive or go to work.
It is important to note that not all people are affected by wind. In fact, most research seems to show that only about one-third of any given population is impacted. But those affected should be happy to learn their weather-induced complaints are not in their heads.
According to William Puzzo, Professor of World Geography at Cal State Fullerton, too many positive ions tends to “overcharge” people, both emotionally and physically, making one’s hair tend to stand on end. There you have it: bad air causes irritability, fatigue, migraines — and bad hair.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now