Does drinking alcohol really keep you warm?
Four for the road
Also in this week's column:
- Can you judge someone's personality by the shape of their ears?
- What is a post-lumbar puncture headache?
- What is a fistula?
Does drinking alcohol really keep you warm?
No! So says the Swiss Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Problems. If the legendary St Bernard finds you stranded in the icy Alps, you would be better off hugging the hound than downing the hooch of the pooch.
Alcohol only gives a false sense of warmth, but the dog could pass along some lifesaving body heat. Even a little nip from the brandy keg will send your blood to the surface of your skin. You may feel warmer, but your blood will actually be cooled.
Many heat sensing nerves are located near the surface of the skin. Drinking can make you temporarily feel warmer. In fact, while you get the feeling of warmth from alcohol, it is really unsuitable because it allows the cold to enter the body.
Does drinking alcohol thin the blood?
No! Alcohol is a vasodilator. It causes the blood vessels to expand. This is particularly true for the tiny capillaries located just below the skin's surface. The normal thermostatic control of the body is altered by alcohol ingestion. The blood vessel dilation allows a greater amount of blood volume to be brought to the skin's surface. This facilitates heat loss and also explains why your face looks flushed when you have been drinking. But alcohol does not thin blood.
Why does drinking alcohol make you feel thirsty?
Alcohol ingestion forces the body to metabolise it in order to remain chemically balanced for proper body functioning. In doing so, the body actually draws water from body tissues. This can cause a thirsty feeling. Drinking more alcohol only makes it worse.
Is alcohol a big factor in accidents?
Yes, in accidents with injuries certainly. According to Dr Gerhard Gmel of the Alcohol Treatment Centre at Lausanne University Hospital and Dr Jurgen Rehm of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Toronto, writing in Alcohol Research and Health (Winter, 2003): "The research evidence indicates a high level of alcohol involvement in all types of unintentional injuries. The number of drinks consumed per occasion, especially when indicated by BAC [blood alcohol concentration], is strongly associated with the occurrence of injuries, independent of the usual frequency and quantity of alcohol consumed. Drinking may be less associated with workplace injuries for various reasons, but appears to play a role in causing falls, the second most common form of unintentional injury."
Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to email@example.com
Sorry Dr. Juan, but...
This column is starting to sound like Steve Wright's "factoids", but even more confused. You're in danger descending to Wikipedia levels of accuracy. I don't suppose there's any chance that you could actually get someone with qualifications in a genuine science to answer the science-related questions, is there? If you're stuck, I'll do it myself...
"Does drinking alcohol really keep you warm?
Well, this much is correct.
"Alcohol only gives a false sense of warmth,"
Under normal circumstances, when the body's core temperature drops by more than a degree or so, the blood vessels near the surface of the skin constrict, keeping the blood closer to vital organs and thus retaining heat. Alcohol, being - as mentioned - a vasodilator, prevents this mechanism from functioning effectively.
So, it's a real sense of warmth; your skin genuinely does get warmer and the warmth you are feeling is your core body heat being radiated from your skin. This is not a good thing if you're buried in the snow or going for a swim, as you will rapidly lose heat to your surroundings.
"In fact, while you get the feeling of warmth from alcohol, it is really unsuitable because it allows the cold to enter the body."
Oh, come ON! Cold doesn't "enter" the body, heat leaves it.
"Does drinking alcohol thin the blood?
No! Alcohol is a vasodilator."
Well, this is true as far as it goes. However, in the context of drinking alcohol when cold, there's another factor to mention. Most deaths involving cold in milder climates such as the UK's aren't from hypothermia, they're from the secondary effect of one's blood thickening. When you're cold for a protracted period, the reduced circulatory path (due to vasoconstriction in the extremities) means that internal organs get more heavily flooded with blood.
In order to reduce the load, the body excretes salt and water. This makes the blood thicker and more likely to clot, leading in an increased incident of heart attacks and strokes in vulnerable persons.
So, although alcohol doesn't thin the blood, it could prevent it thickening during a prolonged period of exposure to cold because it will prevent the usual restriction of circulation.
That's still not to say that consuming alcohol to keep warm is a good idea though...
"Why does drinking alcohol make you feel thirsty?
Alcohol ingestion forces the body to metabolise it in order to remain chemically balanced for proper body functioning.
Well, yes, like almost everything else you might ingest. "Chemically balanced for proper body functioning" sounds like a line from a pseudo-scientific commercial for the latest overpriced bottled water...
"In doing so, the body actually draws water from body tissues. This can cause a thirsty feeling."
This is an absolute load of cobblers. There is more than enough water content - by several orders of magnitude - in any alcoholic beverage to replace the water required for the metabolism of alcohol.
Nor is the other popular explanation - that alcohol is a diuretic - actually the real one. Although alcohol is a mild diuretic, it doesn't usually cause water loss in that manner beyond what is contained in the drink in the first place.
The actual reason that alcohol makes you feel thirsty is very simple: alcohol is an astringent. It does indeed abstract water from body tissues, but this has nothing to do with alcohol metabolism. It dries out your mouth and throat, causing you to feel "dehydrated", even though the chances are that you're no such thing! That's why you feel thirsty.
What on earth are they teaching PhD's in school these days, eh?
Service animal contents; Disinfectant, less brandy, GPS.
The Service Animal wise woman of the woods here has said that rather than using the brandy (and vasodilation effects) to extract big sticks and frozen stuff from one's wounds before carriage, you can now use the more ambergris-like disinfectant towels. The wet towels have to be back with the dog on a 2-hour schedule or they (and possibly the exhausted dog) freeze also.
Leave the GPS beacon where the dog drops it, says; activate it if you have to.
You were really going to read the manual on the thermos, weren't you?
Oh thank Xxalumny! It's EC-813/114.2421.92 on hugging of service animals trained to lie next to rope-jumpers!