Over this past Halloween weekend, it was very cold in State College. However, this did not cause the ladies to cover up much skin. It can be assumed, that before heading out to participate in different festivities, some of the ladies and gentlemen had alcoholic beverages before in hopes of keeping the cold away. But did this actually work? Will alcohol really help people stay warm? The old tradition of the St. Bernard dogs carrying brandy on their collars to people stuck in the mountains may not have been the best idea. Let’s take a closer look.
A study was done by the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine on the true effects of alcohol on the human body in the cold. The study showed that alcohol significantly reduced the body’s ability to shiver. The alcohol makes people feel warmer and thus lessens the body’s instinct to shiver. What was interesting was that the study did not reveal the exact mechanism in the alcohol that causes the body to be unable to shiver. The exact explanation from the researchers’ paper is: “Many agents are known either to exacerbate or modulate alcohol’s effects on thermoregulation, although the mechanism(s) for these effects are not clear.” Thermoregulation is the ability a body has to regulate temperature within, even though the external contents are not conducive to the necessary core temperature. What’s vital to understand however, is why does alcohol cause the core temperature to drop so drastically?
Alcohol is referred to as a “vasodilator” which means it widens the blood vessels. In cold weather, blood usually rushes away from the skin to the organs in order to maintain a safe core temperature. So while we may feel cold, our core temperature is being sustained. When alcohol is consumed, this process is reversed. Blood rushes to the skin and thus causes the organs to receive less attention, which is much more dangerous than feeling chilly. The surface of the skin thus feels very warm, and the person will think they are warm because their skin is warm. The warm skin also causes a person to sweat, further cooling the core temperature. As mentioned earlier regarding the study, when a person consumes alcohol they are less likely to shiver, which allows the body to naturally warm up. Since the person physically feels warmer, they do not shiver. So what’s the take away?
More studies need to be done to pinpoint the exact mechanism in alcohol that causes a person to feel warmer. If we can understand the mechanism that is leading to the warmer skin, maybe it can be lessened, without lessening the quality of the alcohol so that people are more aware of their actual body temperature. Unlike how the bacteria in beer was found to be the mechanism causing stomach cancer, the exact link for alcohol causing warmth is still lacking. Further analysis of the content of alcohol must be done in order to insure people’s safety. The number one concern when drinking is safety. While the exact mechanism is not yet known, the misconception cannot continue that alcohol keeps you warm in frigid weather. It may make the consumer FEEL more comfortable but it will not make them anymore immune to the cold weather. Overall, if drinking in the cold, do so responsibly and bundle up!