Here’s Why Some People Are Extra Sensitive to the Cold
Some people can wander around in shorts when there’s snow on the ground, while others are carrying a sweater with them “just in case” at the height of summer. And although it’s not always the case, it seems like it’s usually women and people assigned female at birth who are the ones with that magical ability to detect even the slightest draft. If you’re currently wearing gloves, thick socks, and/or a blanket over your legs even though you’re sitting in your office, you’ve come to the right article. Here’s the science behind why some people feel the cold more acutely than others. (Feel free to use it in the next round of thermostat wars.)
Your body shape might have something to do with it. There’s no one single, simple answer to this cold question, explains Dr. Davide Filingeri, PhD, assistant professor and principal investigator at THERMOSENSELAB, a research lab looking into the ways our bodies react to the surrounding environment based at Loughborough University in the UK. One reason could be your body shape: “The ratio between an individual’s body surface area and body mass is a good indicator of how likely they are to get colder than others in a particular environment,” Filingeri says. What does that mean? Basically, a tall and thin individual is likely to lose more heat to the environment and feel colder than somebody with a higher mass and smaller surface area, like a shorter and larger individual.
Your body makeup might also be a factor. It’s not just exposed skin that makes a difference. For instance, having more fat-free body mass (meaning everything inside your body that’s not fat, e.g. skin, bones and muscle) contributes to that higher metabolism that increases how much heat you produce. This is typically naturally higher in men and people assigned male at birth, which may explain why women and people assigned female at birth tend to be the ones shivering under the air con. Interestingly, an oft-cited study published in The Lancet in 1998 found that gender didn’t affect core body temperature very much: The average for their participants was 97.8°F for people identified as women and 97.4°F for men.
However, they found that the average temperature of female-identified participants’ hands was 87.2°F, compared to 90°F for the male-identified people. The theory is that women and people assigned female at birth have more fat than muscle compared to men and people assigned male, and that it’s concentrated away from our extremities, around our organs. Although the fat-free body mass men and male assigned people have more of is good at generating heat, fat is good at holding heat in — but that might mean your hands and feet suffer by comparison. This appears to be backed up by another study published in Extreme Physiology & Medicine, which focused specifically on hands. When subjected to normal, cool, and cold temperatures, all the participants reported feeling the same temperature sensations, but those identified in the study as female were less able to tolerate cold in their fingers.
However, Filingeri says that sensitivity in your extremities might have more to do with that body surface area he mentioned than with your assigned gender. He points to a recently published study the lab conducted which found that people with a similar body surface area showed close levels of cold sensitivity in their hands and feet, regardless of their gender, with notable differences only occurring on skin that wasn’t covered in hair. So maybe growing out our body hair is the answer.
Being sensitive to the cold isn’t all bad. If you’re one of the perpetually cold people who dreads every winter and hides from the air con, there is some hope. The reason humans respond so strongly to cold is because keeping your core temperature at a steady level is vital to survival: If it drops too low, you can get hypothermia. Your skin feeling cold is part of your body’s way of telling you that you could be in a situation that threatens that core temperature. Filingeri says that people who naturally feel the cold tend to prepare for it better: “If you become insensitive to cold, you might be more likely to suffer a cold-related injury, because you might not realize you are getting too cold until it is too late.”
That said, if you’re less concerned with the risk of hypothermia on a daily basis, and just want your body to stop overreacting to, say, a chilly spring breeze, there are extreme measures. “Prolonged exposures to cold can make your body better at coping with it, both from a physiological and perceptual point of view,” Filingeri adds. “There are occupations where workers experience coldness on a regular basis (e.g., fishermen), and it appears that these individuals adapt over time to cope with these thermal challenges.” On second thought, don’t try that at home: We’ll just stick with the extra pair of socks, thanks.
If you’re the cold one in your office, send us your best warm-up tricks for home and work @BritandCo.
(Photo via Getty)