Does Drinking Alcohol Really Keep You Warm When It's Cold Out?

Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his “Daily Knowledge” newsletter, click here.

Here's something tailgaters, ice skaters, skiers and other cold weather fans might want to keep in mind: Drinking boozy beverages will make you feel warmer, but it doesn't actually keep you warm or prevent hypothermia. Instead, drinking alcohol lowers the core temperature of your body.

According to Dr. William Haynes, director of Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Iowa, “Consumption of alcohol undoes many of the human body’s healthy reflexes, one of which is keeping the core body temperature warm in cold weather.” It doesn’t even take that much for this effect to kick in—just one alcoholic drink will start the process that results in a lowered core body temperature.

How does alcohol do this, and why does drinking alcohol make you feel warmer, even though you actually are getting colder?

You Booze, You Lose (Heat)

Alcohol is a vasodilator. It causes your blood vessels to dilate, particularly the capillaries just under the surface of your skin. When you have a drink, the volume of blood brought to the skin’s surface increases, making you feel warm. (That dilation is why slightly or exceedingly intoxicated people look flushed.) This overrides one of your body’s defenses against cold temperatures: Constricting your blood vessels, thereby minimizing blood flow to your skin in order to keep your core body temperature up.

Someone enjoying a drink in the cold may feel warmer from the extra blood warming his skin, but that blood will rapidly cool thanks to the chill in the air. Plus, the warmth caused by blood rushing to the skin will also make him sweat, decreasing his core temperature even further. The rapid drop often occurs without the drinker realizing it, because his skin will still feel fairly warm, which makes it doubly dangerous to drink alcohol in extremely cold weather. (You might want to put down the coffee, too; caffeine has a similar effect.)

The Big Chill

This isn’t the only bad thing about drinking alcohol in the cold. According to a study done by the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, drinking alcohol in chilly weather also reduces the body’s ability and tendency to shiver, taking away yet another method your body uses to help keep warm when it is cold.

Bottom line? The age-old practice of drinking alcoholic beverages to keep the body warm in cold weather is the exact opposite of what you should do.

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Feeling Down? Lifting Weights Can Lift Your Mood, Too
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There’s plenty of research that suggests that exercise can be an effective treatment for depression. In some cases of depression, in fact—particularly less-severe ones—scientists have found that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants, which don’t work for everyone and can come with some annoying side effects. Previous studies have largely concentrated on aerobic exercise, like running, but new research shows that weight lifting can be a useful depression treatment, too.

The study in JAMA Psychiatry, led by sports scientists at the University of Limerick in Ireland, examined the results of 33 previous clinical trials that analyzed a total of 1877 participants. It found that resistance training—lifting weights, using resistance bands, doing push ups, and any other exercises targeted at strengthening muscles rather than increasing heart rate—significantly reduced symptoms of depression.

This held true regardless of how healthy people were overall, how much of the exercises they were assigned to do, or how much stronger they got as a result. While the effect wasn’t as strong in blinded trials—where the assessors don’t know who is in the control group and who isn’t, as is the case in higher-quality studies—it was still notable. According to first author Brett Gordon, these trials showed a medium effect, while others showed a large effect, but both were statistically significant.

The studies in the paper all looked at the effects of these training regimes on people with mild to moderate depression, and the results might not translate to people with severe depression. Unfortunately, many of the studies analyzed didn’t include information on whether or not the patients were taking antidepressants, so the researchers weren’t able to determine what role medications might play in this. However, Gordon tells Mental Floss in an email that “the available evidence supports that [resistance training] may be an effective alternative and/or adjuvant therapy for depressive symptoms that could be prescribed on its own and/or in conjunction with other depression treatments,” like therapy or medication.

There haven’t been a lot of studies yet comparing whether aerobic exercise or resistance training might be better at alleviating depressive symptoms, and future research might tackle that question. Even if one does turn out to be better than the other, though, it seems that just getting to the gym can make a big difference.

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