So you’re cold in Truckee, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and you want to do something about it. You have already researched, acquired, and applied layering systems, but now you feel like the Michelin man—only broke. The cold has gotten painful enough that you begin to limit your outdoor activities. Well, there’s good news; you can do something besides spend more money to improve your resistance to the cold.
To understand how to keep warm, it helps to have an appreciation and understanding of the body. The body’s main objective with regards to temperature is to keep our body at 98.6 degrees. Our body has many, sophisticated methods of adjusting itself, and if you pay attention, you can feel the effects of the body working to maintain it’s temperature. Think of your circulation system as if it were a radiator in the car. In order to maintain the ideal operating temperature, a radiator controls the amount of fluid flowing through it. If your car is heading up Mt. Rose in the summer, it will begin to heat up. More fluid will be directed through the radiator to compensate for this heating. If the engine is cold, then very little fluid will run through the radiator to conserve heat. Our body does the same thing by dilating or restricting our blood vessels. This is done through small muscles in the blood vessel walls. If our bodies are running warm, then the muscles in the blood vessels relax causing an increased amount of blood flow. This carries our body heat to our extremities where it radiates into the environment.
Conversely, when we are exposed to cold temperatures, our bodies conserve our heat by shunting our blood internally, where it is best kept insulated from the environment. This is the reason why you’re extremities begin to stiffen and numb when you are cold, they are simply deprived of adequate blood to function properly. Taken to an extreme, the body is willing to sacrifice extremities to keep organs critical for survival at that magic 98.6 degree temperature. Frost bite results when an extremity (typically nose, toes, fingers, or ears) has been deprived of blood for so long that the tissue has actually died for lack of the essential nutrients (like oxygen) that the blood transports.
Thus our bodies face a bit of a problem when it comes to performing in the cold. Naturally, our bodies pull blood from our extremities to protect our important internal organs, but we can’t play in the snow if we can’t feel our hands and feet. To keep our hands and feet warm we need to keep our body temperature elevated—we have to warm up our engine and open up our radiator.
The first step in accomplishing this is to keep our metabolism revved up by eating adequate calories and then burning them through exercising. If we reduce our caloric intake through dieting or inactivity, we cool down our engines and restrict the blood flow to our extremities. Watching television, interestingly, puts us in a trance-like state that actually lowers our metabolism below normal levels of inactivity. Exercising regularly will enhance long term warmth throughout the winter. And a quick warm up exercise before venturing out into the cold, such as 10 minutes of calisthenics, will temporarily spike our metabolism, buffering us against the elements. It may seem ridiculous to be doing 10 minutes of jumping jacks in the lodge before going out to ski, but it works. To keep our radiators open, we need to start warm.
If nothing works and you are just convinced that you are ‘cold blooded,’ it may be worth looking at some possible structural issues that prevent you from getting warm. Abnormal muscle tension or bone alignment can affect blood flow by putting pressure on the blood vessels. The abnormal muscle tension and alignment would commonly be associated with pain closer to your core then the cold extremity. I.e. cold hands with neck or shoulder pain. If this were the case, you might try some stretching or yoga. If that doesn’t work a visit to your doctor, chiropractor, physical therapist, or osteopath may be in order.
Always feeling cold could also be an indication of an underlying health problem. Raynaud’s disease is an abnormal vasoconstriction characterized by your fingers or toes first getting blue and cold then as they warm up getting abnormally red. Biofeedback treatment can benefit this syndrome because it teaches you how to open the blood vessels with your mind. Another serious problem that could present itself as cold hands and feet is atherosclerosis, or blocking of the arteries by plaque. This is a serious disease that can generally be identified through a family history of heart disease and stroke. Blood tests like total cholesterol, HDL and LDL cholesterol, and a newer test called homocystiene are also good indicators of atherosclerosis. People with arteriosclerosis have abnormal blood vessel constriction, leaving them more susceptible to cold. Natural treatment includes the B vitamin niacin and added fiber.
One of the most common disorders that I see in my practice is hypothyroidism, which is a disease, characterized by decreased activity of the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland controls our metabolism. If it is running low, your body temperature will be low and you will be cold in a room when others are comfortable. Other common symptoms are tiredness, constipation (defined as less then one bowel movement per day), dry skin, and immune problems like frequent colds. You can screen yourself for hypothyroidism by taking your armpit temperature first thing in the morning. It should be 97.6 degrees, or about one point below oral temperature. You can naturally support your thyroid function with the herb bladderwack, the minerals iodine and selenium, seaweed, and brazil nuts.
If you have symptoms of any of these diseases see your Chiropractor and use natural therapies to help your body run better.
There are other important factors that affect how efficiently our system maintains its temperature; in particular, the quantity and viscosity of our blood. If we are dehydrated, then the system will keep the blood in our core and it does this by constricting our blood vessels and decreasing extremity blood flow. Dehydration is as much, if not more of, a risk in the winter as in the summer. Cold air is drier and pulls more moisture out of your body. Cold also encourages urination. Sadly, most people are dehydrated most of the time, so this plays a large role in temperature regulation and other health issues. You are dehydrated if you do not drink ½ your weight in ounces per day in water (150-pound person must drink 75 ounces of water). This does not take into account the dehydrating effects of diuretic beverages (things that make you urinate) that contain caffeine or alcohol, increased physical activity, or low humidity levels.
When it comes to blood viscosity, the thicker your blood, the slower it moves. This decreases temperature-regulating efficiency. People with elevated cholesterol levels have increased blood thickness. You can lower viscosity by lowering your cholesterol levels and consuming cold-water fish like salmon and mackerel. You also get this same effect by consuming omega 3 fish oils. Adequate hydration also affects viscosity levels.
Caffeine containing beverages like soda, tea, and coffee cause our bloods vessel muscles to constrict, decreasing blood flow and making are extremities vulnerable to cold. In addition, certain drugs also cause blood vessel constriction. There are also certain substances that cause blood vessels to dilate: ginkgo biloba; the amino acid arginine; and magnesium, which is found in high levels in green vegetables and nuts. This opening up of the blood vessels will have a warming effect on the extremities.
Alcohol does not warm us up, it only gives a temporary feeling of warmth in our mouth and stomach. On the contrary, alcohol cools us by encouraging dehydration and by interfering with the control of body temperature.
Hopefully this information will help you keep warm and cozy as you head out to play in the snow this winter. Dressing properly is the first order of business, afterwards, apply the techniques for raising the metabolism to help you produce your own heat throughout the cold months. If you can’t seem to get or stay warm, it may be time to look for explanations in your health. Everybody should be able to safely enjoy the winter, so prepare and have fun.