Energy crisis: How to better endure the cold

Less heating is the order of the day. Slowly but steadily the weather is getting colder. If you don’t want to freeze or turn up the heat, there are a few other ways to avoid sitting in the office and shivering. While some start to slobber at 20 degrees, others only freeze in winter. But the symptoms are always the same: the blood vessels on the surface of the skin contract, blood flows from the outside in, and you start shaking. Gender, age, genetics and body size affect the individual’s perception of cold as much as fitness and weight.

Most people experience heat as uncomfortable or painful at a similar temperature. “It may differ by one or two degrees,” explains Michael Fischer. He is head of the Department of Physiology at the Medical University of Vienna: “When it comes to feeling cold, there can be a difference of more than ten degrees between two people.” Most of the factors that determine whether someone freezes quickly or not can only be influenced to a small extent.

Lack of protein makes you more cold resistant

A study led by the Swedish Karolinska Institute showed that one in five people lack the protein α-actinin-3 in their muscles. This deficiency means that those affected are less sensitive to cold. According to the study, this deficiency probably arose when modern humans migrated from Africa several thousand years ago and were thus better able to adapt to the colder climate.

Men are also less likely to catch cold because their skin is thicker than women’s. The hormone testosterone also promotes the building of muscle mass, which also protects against the cold. The ratio between surface and volume is also important for the perception of cold. Small people freeze faster than big people because taller people have less body surface area compared to their volume.

As a result, obese people do not cool down as quickly as thinner people. In addition, white fat, the fat in the padding on the hips and legs, acts as an insulator. But that’s no reason to put on winter bacon, says Fischer. Because: “An increased body mass index beyond the recommended level has many negative health effects.”

Only exercise really helps

In addition to the classic white fat, there are also brown fat cells. In adults, these are located in the deep throat and neck area as well as in the upper body. Brown fat is a thermal powerhouse. It burns calories and thereby releases heat. Babies get a lot more of it because their muscles are not yet able to produce enough heat and the fat protects them from cooling. With increasing age and weight, the proportion of brown fat continues to decrease.

So if you could activate brown fat more specifically or turn white fat into brown fat, you would be better protected against the cold. It can also help fight obesity because people with higher levels of brown fat burn more calories. Research into this is still at a very early stage, says Fischer.

According to the physiologist, there is only one thing that helps to really become more tolerant to the cold, namely sports: “Fitness is important. Someone with a higher proportion of muscle also freezes less often.” Because more muscle mass also increases the basal metabolic rate. Muscles are the body’s thermal power plant, they convert energy and thus release heat. So the more muscles you have, the more heat you can produce.

Performance decreases in cold rooms

Nevertheless, the feeling of cold remains very individual in the end. It is therefore questionable how sensible it is, for example, to heat an office to just 19 degrees. According to Fischer, this is not harmful to health, but it not only saves energy, it also saves human resources. “In an open office environment, some people are at their optimal temperature and others are not. In recent years, research has shown that cognitive performance varies by gender. To put it bluntly, there is an ideal temperature for women that is slightly higher than the ideal temperature for men.”

This is also shown, for example, in a study in which the mathematical and verbal abilities of men and women were examined at different temperatures. The result: As a rule, women’s verbal skills are better than men’s. But the lower the temperature, the more the abilities level out. Men’s math skills were superior, but as the temperature rises they fall, while women’s continue to rise.

According to Fischer, alternating hot and cold showers or exposing oneself to cold does not work to increase resilience. Although a Dutch study showed that alternating showers have positive effects on health and the immune system, it did not examine the perception of cold: “You can become more resistant to strong stimuli in general, even those related to cold. However, one should not expect the body to become more resistant to cold. The positive influence on the psyche is more in the foreground.”

Frostbite should dress warmly

According to Fischer, even regular exposure to cold does not make one less sensitive to cold: “The extent to which we voluntarily expose ourselves to cold leads to reduced chills and reduced surface vascular constriction if it is repeated. This means that it also leads to reduced protection against the cold. It is only under extreme conditions, which we can hardly or with difficulty produce at will, that the body cools to such an extent that thermogenesis sets in.” Thermogenesis describes the production of heat. It is therefore a psychological effect if you frequently expose yourself to cold and then no longer find it so unpleasant.

If you feel cold in the office and at home despite exercising, you have little choice but to dress warmly. “Clothing creates an air layer between the clothing and the skin. They insulate extremely well,” says Fischer. It also helps to get up and move around in between to stimulate blood flow and the cardiovascular system. This is not only good for the body, but also promotes concentration.

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