Fact vs. Fiction: Does Alcohol Actually Keep You Warm?
By, Meredith Jenkins
Baby, it’s cold outside. But then you step into a bar or house party and proceed to get drunk like it’s your job. Why? Because it’s the holiday season, of course! When it’s time to go home, you might be too wasted to retrieve your coat. As you step into the cold, you still feel a soothing sense of warmth flowing throughout your body… even without your jacket. You think to yourself, “I don’t need my coat. I’ve got my ‘beer jacket’ on. I’ll be fine!” But does alcohol actually keep you warm when you’re drunk (meaning, you’ve had 3-5 drinks and your blood alcohol content is 0.08 or higher)? Let’s find out.
Dr. David Raslau, an internist at the Mayo Clinic, says that alcohol does actually make you feel warm because it dilates the blood vessels under your skin. Kenneth Warren, PhD, advisor to the director at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), agrees noting, “Alcohol is a vasodilator, which means it widens the tiny blood vessels called capillaries right under skin, so they quickly fill with warm blood.” This makes you feel warm or flushed, usually starting in your face and then spreading throughout your body. Raslau cautions that this feeling of warmth is deceptive because although your whole body feels hot, only your skin is actually warm.
In fact, you’re really losing heat from the surface of your skin, which causes your core temperature to drop. That’s right. Although you feel warm all over, Raslau says, your body temperature is actually dropping. Even more alarming is that alcohol will keep telling your body to release heat from your skin, even after the party’s over and you’re out in the cold. Caroline Kee, a BuzzFeed News Reporter, notes, “Alcohol impairs your body’s ability to realize it needs to stop dilating your capillaries and sending blood to the skin in order to prevent your internal temperature from getting too low.” Raslau adds, “It’s as if your body is in permanent ‘on mode’ for releasing heat from the skin’s surface.” No bueno.
Worse still, Kee reports, “Alcohol also messes with the part of our brain (the brainstem) that controls thermoregulation, so your body has trouble warming back up.” Warren explains, “Your brainstem uses thermoregulation to adjust the body to hot or cold environments, so you can maintain a steady core temperature (about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit).” In short, we need thermoregulation to survive and protect our vital organs because extremely low or high body temperatures can lead to brain damage, cardiac arrest and even death.
According to Raslau, when it’s cold your brainstem “should be constricting blood vessels in the skin and extremities to pull blood back to the internal organs — which is why your hands and feet get cold first or turn blueish — pushing blood to the heart, and forcing your body to shiver because the quick movements generate heat.” However, alcohol impairs the brainstem, so these mechanisms don’t always happen. “Drunk people think they aren’t shivering because they aren’t cold, but in reality, they aren’t shivering because the alcohol is preventing thermoregulation,” Raslau explains. When this happens, you become like a cold-blooded reptile and your body temperature drops with the cold air outside instead of adjusting to stay warm. Yikes!
Ok, so you’re now a drunk reptile out in the cold. But the funny thing is, you don’t know any of this is happening to you. Warren notes that when you go outside in the cold after you lose thermoregulation, your body temperature will fall significantly, BUT you won’t know you’re freezing because booze dulls the brain’s ability to sense that you’re cold. Raslau clarifies, “Alcohol works like an anesthetic in the body because once it enters the bloodstream and hits the brain, it turns down our nerve response to stimuli like the cold so you aren’t as aware of it.”
So, this holiday season, as you make the yuletide gay, be sure to: 1) know the facts about alcohol, 2) drink responsibly and 3) bundle up. Oh, and be sure to leave your mythical “beer jacket” at home with the rainbow unicorn in your closet. But seriously, if you have a rainbow unicorn in your closet, call me.