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Becoming Acclimated to the Cold Weather

7 Mar 2014, 12:37 pm

Temperatures are rising across the northern regions.  After feeling trapped indoors during a deep freeze for what has felt like months, these warming temperatures are a welcome relief and a chance to get outside for change.  People are throwing open the sunroofs and breaking out the shorts as temperatures climb into the 30s and 40s. Heat wave!

Highs Today

While many of these numbers aren’t all that far off from average for this time of year, it feels warm compared to how cold it has been.  So why does temperatures in the 20s feel so great now when back in November that would have felt like the biter cold? Experts say that it all has to do how our bodies acclimate to the climate after time.

Brandon Swanson

From the University of Iowa: “Acclimatization–the process by which you become physically adjusted to the temperature of your environment–plays an important role in how well you tolerate heat and cold, says Dr. G. Edgar Folk, physiology professor in the UI Carver College of Medicine. People who spend a great deal of time outdoors become “outdoor acclimatized.” These persons are affected less by heat or cold extremes because their bodies have adjusted to the outdoor environments, Folk says. “Acclimatization usually occurs over a period of about two weeks in healthy, normal persons,” he adds. “This process is faster in response to heat, but slower in the cold.”

It’s Easier to Adjust to the Hot Weather Than the Cold Weather

From “Ultimately, we are a heat-adapted species,” said Josh Snodgrass, an anthropologist at the University of Oregon, Eugene. “Even populations we think of as quintessentially cold-adapted, like Siberians or the Inuit, are not that far removed from human ancestors that adapted to heat. Our bodies are just not as good at dealing with cold.” Anyone who lives in a seasonal climate goes through the adjustment process every year. After a long, hot summer, the first few chilly days of fall are a shock to the system — and the feeling is only partly psychological. When you’re not yet used to cool temperatures, your body reacts in several ways. First, it shivers, which is a useful — if uncomfortable — way of generating warmth. At the same time, blood vessels that lead to the extremities constrict as the body prioritizes sending blood to the core and keeping the essential organs warm. The result is cold fingers that don’t work as well as they should and aching toes that feel like ice cubes. Over time, and that generally means several weeks, the human body adjusts to cold by dulling the shivering response. It also gets quicker at finding a balance between vessel constriction and dilation, allowing both the core and the outer shell of the body to stay warm. This process of habituation helps explain why temperatures that seem shocking in November can actually feel good in March.”

Women Feeling Colder Than Men

What about the differences between men and women?  Usually men seem to have a higher tolerance to cold than women.  A look at some of the studies done in regards to those differences.

From “Now, a “standard man,” by EN 13537’s estimation, is 25 years old, 5’8″ tall and weighs 161 pounds; while a “standard woman” also 25, is assumed to measure 5’3″ tall and weigh 132 pounds. Larger animals tend to gain and lose heat more slowly than smaller ones, by virtue of their smaller surface-area-to-volume ratios. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, differences in height and weight are thought to affect core body temperature and the way we experience warmth or cold. But men and women vary by more than just height and weight. They also tend to have very different body compositions – and that makes things a bit more complicated. In an epic series of 19th century experiments, German physician Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich collected and analyzed over a million armpit temperatures from some 25,000 patients. He concluded that the average adult had a healthy body temperature of 98.6 degrees – but women, he observed, tended to have slightly higher body temperatures than men….But in 1998, researchers at the University of Utah added a layer of subtlety to science’s understanding of gender and body temperature. As had been found in previous studies, the researchers observed women tended to possess higher core temperatures than men (97.8 °F vs. 97.4 °F). Their hands, however, were consistently colder. A lot colder. While men registered an average hand temperature of 90 °F, the mean hand temperature for women was just 87.2 °F.

Gretchen Mishek

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