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“Cold! If the thermometer had been an inch longer, we’d all have frozen to death.” ~ Mark Twain
A short primer on human thermoregulation
Humans have a much higher body temperature than cold-blooded animals such as reptiles and amphibians. This is because our body temperature has evolved to be high enough to resist fungal infections. Cold-blooded animals have little resistance to these types of infections.
Many are the giant reptiles of prehistory that were brought to the ground by microscopic fungi. Higher body temperatures allowed mammals to dominate our planet.
The average range of human body temperature, 97.6 to 99.6 degrees Fahrenheit, has dropped slightly over one degree Fahrenheit in the past 100 years. A likely cause for this drop is the control that modern medicine exerts over infectious diseases; less inflammation, less need for an elevated temperature.
Generally, there is about a one degree Fahrenheit difference between the oral temperature and the core temperature. The core temperature is that of the internal organs – the heart, liver, kidneys, etc. When the core temperature drops to approximately 95 degrees, the body responds by activating several defensive strategies to prevent further heat loss.
These responses include, but are not limited to, the physical sensation of cold, constriction of blood vessels in the extremities to prevent heat loss to the surrounding environment, and shivering. Shivering is involuntary muscle contractions that can raise the body temperature, but at a significant cost of energy. Once that energy is depleted, shivering slows down and stops.
Shivering is generally viewed as the body’s last-ditch effort to maintain the normal core temperature. If the body is not actively rewarmed when shivering ceases, the body temperature will plummet. This will lead to severe hypothermia and, ultimately, death.
Throughout the 1980s, I traveled around the country warning of the dangers of hypothermia, frostbite and heatstroke. Through lectures, articles and classrooms, the public and industry were made aware of ways to reduce these hazards in outdoor pursuits as well as in the workplace.
Those who trained the public and emergency medical personnel felt that education could reduce the number of fatalities from heatstroke and acute hypothermia. And, indeed, it did.
We also tried to impress upon our audiences how marvelously equipped our body is to prevent our core body temperature from dropping or rising into dangerous territory. At its disposal, our body has a variety of mechanisms to maintain a steady core temperature, regardless sof the ambient temperature.
Quite honestly, if any of my students would have suggested that intentionally inducing shivering would have significant health benefits, I would have wondered what he or she was smoking before class.
But, as you can see by what follows, maybe science didn’t see the whole picture back then.
Gurus and Science
Many characters arrive on the scene espousing unorthodox beliefs that, by all appearances, seem – well – crazy. Many of them are wearing tin foil hats; the “Flat Earthers” immediately come to mind.
Yet, Hippocrates, an advocate of fasting, believed that withholding food for periods of time stimulated the body to heal itself. I doubt that many bought into this theory at the time, but it turns out that he was on to something.
The 61-year-old Dutch guru of cold therapy, Wim Hof, is known not only as an extreme athlete but as having unique physiology when it comes to cold. His body apparently doesn’t follow the same rules of hypothermia as the rest of us mere mortals.
And indeed, when packed with ice in a tall Plexiglas box for one hour, his core body temperature remains stable.
But, he says, we can all train our bodies to adapt to cold and ward off hypothermia for extended periods. His website describes classes and workshops focused on breathing techniques and cold therapy.
Among the activities available are cold yoga, ice bathing and cold exercise. These, Hof claims, can boost the immune system, burn fat, reduce inflammation, and improve sleep, mood and confidence.
Of course, Wim Hof is not the first to espouse the therapeutic benefits of getting cold occasionally. We have all heard of the hale and hearty cold-water enthusiasts called the Polar Bear Club. Every New Year’s Day, the club’s chief blows a conch, signaling a stampede of hundreds of people into the cold Atlantic Ocean.
The Polar Bear Club got its start in Coney Island way back in 1903. Its leading promoter, Bernarr Macfadden, believed that cold exposure could shock our immune system into action resulting in increased stamina.
For hundreds of years, a sect of Tibetan monks in northern India has demonstrated that they can suppress the usual defenses against acute hypothermia through a deep form of meditation called “g Tum-mo.”
To demonstrate this, they sit unclothed in a 40-degree room and are covered with sheets soaked in ice-cold water. By raising their body temperature through g Tum-mo, they can dry the sheet. It takes about an hour to dry one sheet completely, and tradition dictates that the monks dry three sheets at one sitting.
In order to perform this remarkable feat, they must override the body’s normal response to cold, restricting blood flow to the capillaries. To date, science has never been able to fully understand how they do it.
Modern research does support the fact that exposure to cold will stimulate brown fat to break down glucose resulting in the production of heat. Additionally, frequent exposure to cold will increase our deposits of brown fat, even in older people.
‘Brown fat is adipose tissue found in the back and shoulder areas of the human body and decreases in volume as we age. It is a mitochondrial rich fat compared to white fat. In the last Watoga Trail Report, we established that mitochondria are pivotal for epigenetic changes to our genes.’
So, there is ample scientific evidence and replicable data that confirms elective stressors such as fasting and cold therapies can and do benefit the body and mind. Yet, I must remind you that both of these forms of “health hacking” carry dangers and should only be attempted under medical supervision.
Hypothermia and prolonged fasting can cause harm and death when certain thresholds are exceeded, particularly for those with predisposing health conditions. For most of us, plunging into ice water or sitting in the cold naked and drying wet sheets is not on our bucket list.
But we can get the benefits of cold exposure by something as simple as keeping our thermostat set at a lower temperature. I set mine at 64 degrees, and I became quite comfortable with this temperature after just a few days.
My only intentional dip in cold water occurred in the mid-1980s at a popular swimming hole on the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River.
I was one of a small group of climbers who had completed our annual New Year’s Day climb of Seneca Rocks. One robust fellow suggested we take a plunge in the river to celebrate.
My idea of an appropriate celebration was quite different than his, and it included a bubbly form of fermented grapes.
I managed to walk out into the frigid water up to my belly button and quickly lowered the rest of my body underwater. It took my breath, and I was up on shore faster than a long-tailed cat fleeing a room full of rocking chairs.
I stood in front of a roaring campfire for a good two hours before regaining sufficient physical evidence of my gender. Never again, not even to live for another century, will I submit myself to such a shocking experience.
Stay warm – most of the time anyway.
Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To, David A. Sinclair PhD
If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Ken Springer, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health – Heat Stress Criteria Document 1984
The Big Chill, Ken Springer, Ohio Monitor November 1984
Radio Lab, You Are What Your Grandpa Eats, 2012
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Michael Pollan