The physiological effects of moving and living overseas
Much is written about the psychological effects of expat life; culture shock, Expat Child Syndrome, Expat Mental Health issues, and much more. But it’s not just our emotions that go through a roller-coaster ride when we move and live abroad; our body can also be affected by the changes. Changes of food, climate, water, altitude, and even the temperature in the house can all have a physiological effect on our body.
The truth is that some of these changes can impact our health and that of our families, in a variety of surprising, and sometimes difficult, ways.
Possibly the biggest change you will experience when you move to a new country, is the climate. With regard to the changes in climate, it can take a while – sometimes years – to adjust to a much hotter or colder climate. Being a Brit, everyone expects me to be overjoyed with the heat and almost constant sunshine. While the sun is lovely, of course, it does get a bit boring after a while. I’m perfectly prepared to admit I’m probably the odd one out in this though – I enjoy looking at clouds! Also, I personally find the heat too much to bear as I get older. I’m almost looking forward to British grey skies, chill and not knowing what the weather will be like when I open my curtains in the morning!
Your blood will thin in a hot climate in order to cool your body down, and being hot all the time can be exhausting. You will also perspire a lot more, meaning that unless you increase your intake of water, you can quickly become dehydrated.
Of course, being cold all the time can be very miserable too, especially if you’re used to the warmth.
There is a saying, though;
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”
Alfred Wainwright, A Coast to Coast Walk
You’re also adapting to different levels of light as some places stay lighter much later than others. So to move overseas from a country with long hours of sunshine to one with few, can have a powerful effect on your morale and can even lead to SAD. SAD (Expat Mental Health issues) is a condition common in North European countries, or countries where it gets dark early. SAD can have an effect on your work levels, your motivation and can even lead to depression. If you are feeling affected by the lack of light, you’ll need to take corrective action. Exercise in natural daylight helps and there are light boxes available to buy which can make a profound difference.
Humidity will also have an effect on your body. If you’re used to a dry country, you may find humidity very hard to get used to. The cold seems much colder and the heat feels much hotter when the humidity levels are high. If you’re used to a degree of humidity, then moving to a dry country (no, not ‘alcohol dry’!) will be tough in other ways. Hair either goes static, flyaway and frizzy, or limp and lifeless. On a more serious note, humidity levels can affect people suffering from asthma or eczema.
Altitude has a powerful effect on your body. High altitude is officially defined as starting at 2,400 metres (8,000 feet) – that’s when the potentially fatal Altitude Sickness can kick in. However, minor symptoms such as breathlessness may occur at altitudes of 1,500 metres (5,000 feet). I’m hopeless with altitude – always have been. Pretoria is ‘only’ 1,339 metres above sea level but I feel it, and get ‘gaspy’ when I land at the airport after being away. Basically, at higher altitudes the air pressure is lower and there is less oxygen in the air. It feels ‘thin’.
Apparently your body adapts. I’m still waiting after over four years!
Many people who go from houses without central heating and then live in a house with central heating do get a bit of a wake-up call. Central heating is extremely drying to the skin, sometimes cause frequent nosebleeds, especially for children, and can drain even the most energetic of people. Our hot air heating system in Tokyo was necessary, but hard work for our small child. Try to get some humidity into your home from houseplants or a humidifier.
Similarly, to go from a warm, cosy centrally-heated house to a house with no heating can be a real shock when the temperature dips at night and during winter. Blankets and hot water bottles are a cheap solution.
It’s normal to try and cook the same foods as ‘back home’ to create the comfort factor, but as much as you try to replicate favourite dishes, you’ll probably find that the ingredients won’t be exactly the same or you won’t be able to get certain items. And often, imported foods are much more expensive than local goods.
These changes in diet can have an effect on the digestive system especially if you’re quite sensitive to different foods or have any intolerances. Eating new foods can also affect your energy levels and in some cases, it can affect your skin. You will get used to the new meals, but try to take it easy for the early weeks. There’s also a comfort factor around food and if you can’t get the food you need then of course that may affect you emotionally as well.
Lots of people have a huge problem with insects. For the purpose of this article, I’m just referring to the biting and stinging kind, not the general phobia so many people have about creepy crawlies.
Insects differ from country to country and it pays to take note of what to expect. For examples, are you moving to a place where malaria or dengue fever is found? Are there venomous spiders? Learn about them. Don’t freak out!
We usually have a tolerance to insects from our native country and don’t react too badly to a mosquito bite, for example. But you probably don’t have a tolerance to insects from different countries. Mosquitoes love me; you can guarantee I will get bitten a lot, anywhere. For the first couple of week I react very badly, but after that, my tolerance is built and my reactions won’t be as bad. Keep a tube of antihistamine cream nearby and make a note of your reaction to the bite. If you react particularly badly, do get yourself checked out by a doctor as soon as possible.
Up and down
When you live abroad, you’ll be doing lots of different things so the physical demands on your body will change.
Perhaps you had a demanding, active job but now you’re sitting around much more than you’re used to. Maybe you have gone from a flat part of the world to a hilly, mountainous area and your calf muscles are screaming in protest.
In Tokyo and Berlin, I did loads of walking. Japan was a joy to walk everywhere and Germany had amazing forests and lakes on my doorstep to hike around. However, in South Africa, I don’t walk anywhere much at all as it’s generally too dangerous. And the heat for much of the year is too much for me anyway.
You may have to make a conscious effort to maintain a good level of fitness.
Keep an eye on yourself!
It’s important to notice what’s happening to your body and then take appropriate action.
- If you are affected by the lack of light, do something about it.
- If your body is reacting to the different diet, try cutting out some foods.
- If you realise you have lost some fitness, take control.
Do your research so you know what to expect regarding climate, insects and so on. Recognise any that may affect you – and do something about it!