You may know that some illnesses are more common in the winter months, but have you ever thought about why? A recent study has provided a possible explanation for why our risk of illness changes with the weather. It seems our genes alter their behaviour to suit the seasons.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge analysed blood and tissue samples from more than 16,000 people worldwide, which involved examining 22,000 genes in total – nearly all the genes humans possess. They discovered that a quarter of these genes show clear signs of changing with the seasons.
The study’s results showed that in climates such as Britain’s, where the weather changes significantly with the seasons, our immune system genes get more active in the winter months. There were fewer seasonal changes in countries like Iceland, where it’s cold most of the time. In areas near the equator, immune system genes seem to become more active in rainy seasons, when diseases such as malaria are most active.
While it’s unclear why these changes occur, the researchers suggest that genes take cues from environmental signs, such as daylight and temperature, making the immune system more active at times when there’s a higher risk of illness.
However, they also say that when the immune system is revved up, it can be problematic, as it’s more likely to mistakenly attack our own bodies. An over-active immune system can trigger inflammation, which can play a significant role in many diseases, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. This may explain why certain illnesses and health conditions peak during the wintertime in Britain.
“We see a rise in new cases of type 1 diabetes in January, February and March,” says study leader John Todd, a professor of medical genetics. “And heart disease is much worse in the winter months.”
The new findings may help doctors treat patients more effectively during the winter months, using drugs to reduce inflammation, as well as the standard medications used for various health conditions. They may also help the NHS find the perfect time to administer certain vaccinations.
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