How Cold Weather Makes This Connection Between Mood Disorders and Chronic Itchy Skin Even Worse

Dr. Janet Zand

December 13, 2019

As the weather turns colder, some people find that their mood dips with the temperature. Many people blame the loss of light. While this can be a significant contributor to mood swings, the cold weather also brings other challenges.

New research is linking one of these challenges to skin problems, as well as mood swings that bring a persistent feeling of sadness and apathy. Here’s what you need to know to help keep your skin and your spirit bright.

If you suffer from chronic skin problems, you know how frustrating it is. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that these ongoing conditions can affect your mood. But a new study has found that you don’t have to have a diagnosed disease for your skin to begin affecting your mood and the health of your internal organs.

For their study, researchers wanted to identify links between itchy skin and mood disorders. They started by looking at data from 3,530 people with diagnosed skin diseases. Many of these illnesses cause the skin to develop hard, itchy, painful lumps.

The researchers also collected data from 1,000 healthy control participants. The researchers evaluated all of the participants’ mental health with standard and accepted tests. They also looked at some demographic factors and asked about suicidal thoughts and stress levels.

The researchers found some very interesting correlations. Among the patients with chronic skin diseases, 14% suffered from severe mood disorders. Among the control participants, this rate was only 5.7%.

Clearly, there seems to be a correlation between skin disease and mood disorders. But the researchers wanted to know if this link still exists even if there isn’t a diagnosed disease.

Itchy Skin Is a Warning Signal

The researchers looked more closely at the “healthy” controls. They asked if the participants experienced itchy skin at least occasionally. The culprits could be changes in the weather, allergies, or a variety of other factors. Sure enough, the mood disorder rate was a bit higher, at 6%. Interestingly, the participants with itchy skin were also more likely to report stress and economic difficulties.

Then the researchers looked at the participants who never had itchy skin. Their rate of mood issues was only 3%. So the correlation between mood and itch held, even when the itch wasn’t part of a skin disease.

The researchers note that having itchy skin can have a big effect on your quality of life. I’m sure anyone who has experienced it would agree! And of course, as the weather cools down, dry, itchy skin often becomes a problem.

Why the Cold Causes Skin Problems

Being outside in cold, windy air is hard on your skin. Then coming inside to dry, heated air compounds the problem. Even a hot shower can quickly leave your skin feeling parched.

If you already have a chronic skin condition, the stresses of the winter weather can make it worse. And if your skin tends toward dryness year-round, chances are this battle is worse in the winter. Even people with normal or oily skin may find a harsh climate too much for their skin. And all of this can really begin to wear on you.

This study suggests that itchy skin can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depressed mood. But the correlation might work both ways. And if you’re taking any medications to treat your mood, research indicates that it may actually be causing you to itch. This is particularly true if you’re suffering from skin disorders that cause strong itch sensations and dry skin.

Can Medications Make Skin Problems Worse in the Winter?

Conventional medicine currently doesn’t have anything that can cure skin diseases that involve a strong itch sensation, very dry skin, and a bright rash. But researchers may have found out why.

Until a few years ago, scientists didn’t know much about what causes these skin conditions. But in 2015, research found that a serotonin receptor, called HTR7, may play a significant role itchy skin conditions. This was a major breakthrough in the search for relief for itch sufferers.

To make this discovery, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging examined genes from mice suffering from itchy conditions. They honed in on HTR7 because it was very prevalent in the mice with the worst conditions. They also knew that previous studies had linked serotonin signals to certain skin conditions.

The researchers in this study performed a number of experiments to confirm HTR7’s role. They found that removing the HTR7 gene altogether caused the mice to scratch less and reduced the severity of their skin lesions. UC Berkeley neuroscientist Diana Bautista reported, “We are really excited about these results. The dramatic decrease in itching suggests that HTR7 may represent a new drug target for chronic itch.”

The results may also explain why drugs used to treat mood disorders, which often raise serotonin levels, can come with itchy side effects. They tested this theory on the mice. The mice demonstrated significant itching symptoms. But when the researchers removed the HTR7 gene, the scratching stopped.

Human skin neurons express HTR7 just like mouse skin neurons do, so the researchers believe their findings will be relevant to humans as well. Not only may they contribute to eliminating this uncomfortable side effect of mood treatments, they may help scientists determine how to provide relief to itchy skin sufferers as well.

If you have any chronic itchy skin condition and take medication for mood disorders, talk to your doctor about treating your mood issues differently. If your doctor can help you get off of the medication, your eczema might very well improve on its own. And resolving your itchy skin may actually help your mood improve too.

If your mood disorder is severe, calming your skin likely won’t be enough to calm your mind. But it certainly won’t hurt! And keeping your skin soothed and hydrated is always a good idea as we move into the harsh winter weather.

A Few Simple Techniques Can Go a Long Way

When you wash your hands or take a shower, be sure to use a gentle soap and lukewarm water. It can be tempting to take a long, hot shower when it's cold outside. But this is one of the worst things you can do for dry skin.

Once you’ve washed, be sure to moisturize right away. As your skin dries, moisture evaporates. Lock that moisture in with a cream or lotion before it can disappear. Try to apply the moisturizer or lotion less than a minute after you get out of the shower. You can also keep lotion by your sinks so you can reapply right away after washing your hands.

If your hands still feel dry, you can give them some concentrated moisture in the form of vitamin E. Simply pop a vitamin E capsule with a needle and massage the contents onto your hands. Add some coconut, olive, or avocado oil on top of that to really lock in the moisture and nourish your dry skin.

Of course, you'll want to do this at night, when you can immediately cover your hands with cotton gloves. Try this every night for two weeks. You also can try running a humidifier in your bedroom to keep the dry air from pulling hydration from your skin.

Traditional Chinese Medicine to the Rescue

If after all this, your dry skin persists, you may want to try acupuncture. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) strongly associates the lungs with dryness. One of the lungs’ functions is to send moisture throughout the body, including to our skin. The lungs are also very sensitive to changes in temperature, such as those we experience more intensely in the winter. Practitioners of TCM may find that patients with chronic dry skin actually have a lung imbalance.

Moisturizing alone won't correct this imbalance. But acupuncture can. In fact, practitioners have used acupuncture for thousands of years to help treat skin conditions, including dryness. If moisturizing hasn't helped your dry skin, talk to an acupuncturist and get his or her opinion. The practitioner may recommend a mixture of acupuncture, dietary changes, an herbal remedy and other lifestyle practices that can help resolve your dryness issues.

As an added benefit, research has also found that acupuncture can help patients suffering from mood disorders. One research team conducted a trial with 755 participants. They found that acupuncture and counseling could help reduce mood severity for up to 12 months after treatment ended.

This is especially significant because the researchers found that acupuncture and counseling could help treat mood disorders even when medications were ineffective. So this could also be an especially good option for people who find that medications make their dryness issues worse.

For many patients with dry skin or mood issues, acupuncture can be a beneficial and cost-effective treatment option. And you can use it in conjunction with conventional treatments. Acupuncture generally doesn't have any side effects, so the worst-case scenario is likely that it simply won’t help.

However, a skilled practitioner can make a big difference in whether the treatment works or not. So be sure to choose a practitioner certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, which you can find through the NCCAOM’s website. If you're concerned about the cost, try to find your local acupuncture school. They often offer discounts as students, who are supervised by experienced acupuncturists, perfect their techniques.

Itchy skin can be frustrating. But it doesn’t have to be depressing. These strategies will help you keep your cool even when it’s cold.

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