How Cold Affects Our Body

When the temperature outside the window becomes lower, we begin to wrap ourselves in warm blankets and voluminous scarves, we prefer to stay at home more often and start looking for more authentic TV shows. But what happens to our body? Why does the body react to cold this way and not otherwise? We figure out if there is anything useful in the cold weather.

Why do we shiver and sniff in the cold

In the cold, we primarily shiver. And it’s not just that, because fast muscle contractions are one of the ways our body can generate heat. Here, goosebumps can appear on the skin – a kind of evolutionary echo of the times when we were covered with a dense layer of wool. They are stimulated by the hypothalamus, an area in the diencephalon that triggers the body’s “heating” reactions to keep vital organs warm for as long as possible.

We also start sniffing, because a runny nose, oddly enough, can also protect us from the cold. As part of the respiratory tract, the nose plays a key role in heating, moisturizing, and purifying the air we breathe. So when it gets cold and dry air, it instantly increases mucus production to create a better environment.

Look into my eyes forever.

Model: Codi Ann Thomsen
Shot for Unsplash x Timberland.
Photo by Spencer Backman / Unsplash

Well, let’s not forget that in late autumn and winter, even without frostbite, our skin is under threat. As moisture levels drop, it becomes increasingly dry and flaky if not given extra care. This is why the American Skin Association, for example, recommends using moisturizers more often on exposed skin.

Useful (and sometimes not obvious) properties of cold

For a start, a good dream. Research shows that when we fall asleep, our body temperature begins to drop naturally. However, people with insomnia do not seem to be able to properly regulate their body temperature, resulting in difficulty falling asleep.

An experiment with “cooling caps” worn over the head of participants with insomnia suggested that cold temperatures had a positive effect on sleep quality. On the other hand, the researchers found that people with sleep apnea, for example, had better sleep quality in a cool room, but symptoms worsened.

Cold has fat-burning properties (although, as we recall, for most people this shouldn’t be the goal at all). True, not all, but only brown (but this is true even for moderately cold temperatures). Burning fat also stimulates shivering from the cold: in the process, the hormone irisin is released, which, according to some reports, in 15 minutes of shivering can have an effect like an hour of training. Although, to be honest, we would advise you to treat this information with a share of healthy irony.

Hot coffee on a cold day
Photo by Alex / Unsplash

Finally, pain management. Ice and cold compresses have traditionally been used for bumps and bruises. Science confirms that exposure to cold can be effective in reducing pain, but notes that it is best used in combination with medications and other therapies (and only after consulting a doctor).

And then there is cryotherapy, a controlled cold temperature treatment that is used to reduce pain and inflammation in conditions such as rheumatism, muscle, and joint pain, and fibromyalgia. While some research suggests that cold is no more effective for inflammation than other recovery options, it does help some people.

Fourth, a sense of belonging. One curious study found that we tend to make longer phone calls in bad weather but to fewer people. That is, when it is cold and rainy outside the window, we strive to reconnect with those who matter most to us.

Why do we get sick more often in winter

For a long time, scientists thought there were two reasons: viruses, which feel better in cold and dry environments, and an increased concentration of people in rooms. But not so long ago, a third reason was discovered – it seems that the cold still lowers the immune system. Cold temperatures weaken the first line of immune defense of the nose. They began the experiment by modifying the rhinovirus strain that causes most colds. The modification was necessary in order to “inoculate” the virus in mice, which do not respond very well to human viruses.

At normal body temperatures, the cells of the mice built up sophisticated defenses, sending warning signals to uninfected cells around them. The latter, in turn, began to prepare the army from antiviral proteins, which were immediately used to destroy the virus. But at a temperature of 2 degrees and below, information to neighboring cells reached more slowly, and they themselves were rather weakly defended.

Anastasia Fetter

Anastasia Fetter