Nobody likes a frozen bum. So when François Haman tries to get subjects to study the health benefits of uncomfortable temperatures, he gets many, well … cold shoulders. And he doesn’t blame them. “You won’t attract too many people,” says Haman, who is studying thermal physiology at the University of Ottawa in Canada.
The human body is just lousy when it comes to the cold. “I’ve done studies where people were exposed to 7 degrees Celsius [44.6 Fahrenheit]which is not even extreme. It’s not that cold. Few people could last 24 hours, ”he says. (These subjects were even fully dressed: “Mittens, hat, boots and socks. And they still couldn’t stand it.”)
People strive to stay cozy or cool – not shivering or sweating – by smoothing out temperature fluctuations indoors. It’s easy to hit the space heater or yell, “Alexa, warm up my ass!” The moment you feel a hint of discomfort. But maybe you shouldn’t be tinkering with the thermostat so much. Some of the reasons for the slowdown are obvious: Around 47 percent of American households burn natural gas for heating, and 36 percent use electricity, which in the US is still largely derived from fossil fuels. And there may be other reasons to turn to the cold – health factors physiologists like Haman have already begun to uncover.
Before industrialization, says Haman, “these extremes were actually part of life”. The bodies have to deal with cold in winter and heat in summer. “You kept going back and forth and back and forth. And that probably contributed to metabolic health, ”he says.
Researchers know that your body reacts when it’s cold. With prolonged exposure to the cold, new fat appears, muscles change and your well-being increases. But what all this means for modern human health – and whether we can use the effects of the common cold to improve it – remain open questions. One branch of research is trying to understand how fat or muscle changes caused by cold can help ward off metabolic diseases such as diabetes. Another suggests getting comfortable in the cold is easier than you might think – without breaking the heat.
For Haman these are useful scientific questions because freezing is one of the oldest existential threats to our body. “Cold is for me [one of] the most fascinating stimuli, because cold is probably the greatest challenge for humans, ”he says. “Even if heat is a challenge, I’ll survive pretty well as long as I have access to water and shade. The cold is the exact opposite. “
“If you are unable to work together,” he continues, “if you don’t have the right equipment, if you don’t have the right knowledge, you will not survive. It’s that simple. “Finding out how our bodies change in response to such an impressive and ancient enemy offers clues as to how it works and how it could function better.
Haman starts everyone Day with a cold bath or shower. It is urgent because the cold causes the body to release hormones called catecholamines, which are involved in the fight or flight response. “I have this feeling of oh my god, I feel so strong and awake,” he says. “This is my coffee.”