According to a recent survey, a third of us fall out with our partners at least twice a day over that most incendiary of subjects – how high to set the central heating thermostat
As the temperature plummets outside, millions of households across Britain are in the grip of a crisis far more chilling: a thermo-spat.
According to a recent survey, a third of us fall out with our partners at least twice a day over that most incendiary of subjects – how high to set the central heating thermostat. Other research suggests there will be 17 million thermo-spats every week in the UK throughout winter, as more and more couples fight for control over their home heating.
For some, a change in temperature barely registers. But for the perpetually chilly, the cold snap is a thing to dread. These are the people who, despite the layers of wool jumpers, fur coats, scarves, gloves and furnace-like heating, just can’t seem to get warm. But just why is it that some of us feel the cold more than others – and is there any way to end the cold war in your household?
Your blood vessels might be super-sensitive
Those who feel blighted by cold temperatures more severely than their loved-ones are not going mad: some people are indeed more sensitive to the cold than others.
When a deep freeze begins, a cascade of physical functions kick in to keep us at our core, optimum temperature of 37C.
Vascular consultant Professor Mark Whiteley of The Whiteley Clinics explains: ‘The body diverts warm blood away from the extremities – hands, feet, nose, ears and skin – to conserve heat around the core organs such as the brain, heart, lungs, liver, pancreas and kidneys.’
So, having cold, pale fingers and icy toes is perfectly normal come winter time – but some people have a more acute reaction than others. Consultant vascular surgeon John Scurr says: ‘Those who are especially sensitive to cold, for reasons unknown, experience spasms – intermittent constriction – in the small blood vessels that supply the extremities during cold weather, further increasing coldness in these areas. We see this especially in older adults.’
…Or you might have a real medical condition
IN most people, momentary spasms in the sensitive blood vessels are not a cause for concern. However, the extreme end of the spectrum is a medical condition known as Raynaud’s syndrome, estimated to affect up to 20 per cent of the population. Sufferers often find their fingers and toes are cold, numb and turn a blueish colour when the external temperature changes – although some experience worse symptoms than others.
Mr Scurr explains: ‘In Raynaud’s, spasms of the small blood vessels happen far more frequently, and continue for a prolonged period of time. It is not only triggered by very cold temperatures, but also minor changes in temperature, for instance going from a house into an air-conditioned car.
… but sometimes it’s chaps feeling the chill
Winter is in full swing, and as usual a cold war has broken out in the Wensley-Hill household. ‘We argue at least once a week about the temperature in our house – the arguments go round and round, night after night,’ admits Sarah, 35, a graphic designer. Husband, Andrew, 38, a financial analyst, continues: ‘Temperaturegate – as we call it – only started when Sarah got pregnant.’
Sarah claims she used to be ‘a typical woman, always cold’ but says since giving birth to baby Cleo in June last year her ‘body temperature has rocketed’. ‘The thermostat needs to be at 18C and not a smidge higher, or I wake up clammy and boiling hot,’ she says.
‘During these cold winter nights, Andrew cranks the heating up so I wait until he’s asleep, creep down the corridor and turn it off completely. In the morning, he’ll storm down the stairs moaning about it being cold. This sparks the first argument. I tell him to put a jumper on.’
Andrew adds: ‘When I come home from a hard day at work, I want to be cosy and warm in the house, not just as cold as I was on the journey home.
‘Thankfully, I am prepared. I have a thick blanket in the living room, and I wear tracksuit bottoms to bed. And now Sarah has at least agreed to having the heating on in the morning.’
‘We think that Raynaud’s is caused by a fault in the central nervous system which means disrupted signals are sent to the small blood vessels in the extremities, causing them to constrict excessively.’
Dr Niamh O’Kennedy, a research scientist in cardiovascular health at the University of Aberdeen adds: ‘Raynaud’s also often co-exists with diseases that constrict blood flow in the arteries such as atherosclerosis and primary pulmonary hypertension – a type of high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs.’
Some Raynaud’s sufferers may require medication to control the condition. Feeling cold throughout the year can also indicate other underlying problems including anaemia, vitamin deficiency, autoimmune conditions and an under-active thyroid. These either affect the transportation of healthy blood cells, or disrupt signals between the brain’s temperature regulatory system and the rest of the body.
Anxious – or just hungry?
Anxious types are likely to feel far colder than those with nerves of steel. Prof Whiteley explains: ‘If you are anxious, scared or stressed, your body produces the hormone adrenaline. This is responsible for alertness, but also redirects the flow of blood from the small blood vessels in the skin – known as the arterioles – to the muscles of the arms and legs.’
This is an evolutionary response known as ‘fight or flight’. Historically, it was the body’s way of preparing for action when a threat was perceived. But today, many people suffer a ‘faulty’ reaction that is thought to be behind cases of anxiety disorder, and panic attacks.
Ever feel unexpectedly chilly after skipping lunch? It’s your body’s natural response to a lack of fuel, according to Prof Whiteley. He adds: ‘If you are deficient in calories, the body conserves energy by constricting the blood vessels in the skin, making it cold and pale.’
The heartier the meal, the warmer you’ll feel. Participants who eat 50 per cent more high-calorie fat see their skin temperature increase to 50 per cent higher than those who haven’t had the additional fat.
Similarly, US studies have found that eating until full raises skin temperature by an average of 2C about one hour after the meal. The increase in temperature diminishes shortly after eating for those who eat less than they need.
Why women have cold bottoms
Women are far more likely to feel the cold than men – studies show their hands and feet are, on average, 2.8C colder. It’s thought this is due to several evolutionary reasons. Firstly, men have a higher metabolic rate – the speed at which energy is derived from food for all bodily processes, which, in turn, generates heat.
Scientists believe this to be due to men’s higher percentage of muscle mass. This is because muscle burns energy at a faster rate than fat and other tissues, speeding up the metabolism and sparking warmth in the body.
A woman’s core body temperature fluctuates throughout her menstrual cycle – from 36.9C just after a period, to a peak of 37.4C before the next – due to hormonal changes. Men’s, however, remains at a constant 37C.
The female hormone oestrogen also thickens the blood, reducing blood flow to capillaries to the fingers and toes when it’s cold.
What’s more, women’s bodies have a fat content of about 25 per cent, compared to 15 per cent for men, which sits around the hips, bottom and thighs.
Fat acts as an insulator, conserving heat within the body, but leaving the skin cold to touch.
Dr Gavin Donaldson, a senior lecturer in respiratory medicine at University College London, says: ‘The thicker the fat that surrounds your internal organs, the better to keep you warm.’
Ever wonder why…
Up to one in five adults find it hard to use public loos, due to the embarrassment of urinating in the presence of others.
This is a genuine condition called paruresis and the anxiety sufferers feel makes their brain switch to ‘panic mode’. This ‘freezes’ muscles in the bladder wall, which would normally squeeze the bladder when it is full.
Studies show that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help.
Watch out for those cold cures
Several commonly prescribed medications can give you the chills, including over-the-counter cold and flu treatments.
‘Pseudoephedrine, used in a lot of cold and flu medicines, mimics adrenaline and therefore constricts all of the blood vessels under the skin, restricting warm blood flow,’ explains Prof Whiteley. This treats runny noses by restricting blood supply to the glands that produce the mucus, ‘drying’ it up.
Beta-blockers – prescribed for angina and high blood pressure –decrease the activity of the heart, reducing the amount of ‘warming’ blood flowing around the body.
Similarly, a drug called ergotamine, mostly used to treat cluster headaches, causes spasms in the small blood vessels, increasing sensitivity to the cold.
Train yourself to handle the cold
People exposed to prolonged extreme temperatures will find their body makes hormonal, metabolic and circulatory adjustments that will reduce feelings of coldness. Korean pearl divers, for example, who work in freezing waters, have a metabolic rate a third higher than the rest of the population.
Mr Scurr explains: ‘Over many years, changes occur within the body to ensure that, regardless of the outside temperature, the body remains at 37C. Once the body has acclimatised, the cold will no longer feel as extreme.’ Studies show that exposure to an hour of extremely cold temperatures everyday for ten to 14 days is enough to kick-start the acclimatisation process.
Best ways to keep warm
Wrapping up warm helps… but what else can you do to stay warm in the cold snap?
EAT A COLD MEAL
A WARM drink or meal might be temporarily comforting in cold weather, but it’s unlikely to affect core body temperature, as it might make you sweat, which has a cooling effect. Studies show that eating anything at all – hot or cold – will cause a rise in body temperature because heat is generated during the digestive process.
HAVE A MASSAGE
A massage can help stimulate blood flow in the small blood vessels under the skin, increasing temperature in the extremities. Studies also show the relaxing effects of massage reduces the body’s response to cold that draws blood from the skin to organs.
Increasing muscle mass with strength-training and boosting metabolism with regular exercise keeps you warmer. A brisk walk has the same widening effect on the blood vessels as intense exercise, according to research. Dr Donaldson says: ‘If you’re feeling the cold, get up and move around. This gets blood pumping around the body.’