Are northerners more cold “adapted”?
-with Kaylee Faltys, Curator
One of my best friends is a native of Mexico, but has lived in Iowa/Nebraska most of her young adult life. She swears that her body cannot handle the cold of a Midwest winter and regularly flocks to Mexico when the temperatures start to drop. She swears the cold makes her sick and I call her out on it every year. It’s all in her head, I tell her. The human body is the human body, same species, same biology, no matter where your ethnicity originates. But is it? Are people who live the northern latitudes scientifically different to colder temps or do they just get “use” to the cold?Humans are mammals. Mammals are warm-blooded meaning our body’s need to regulate a certain constant core temperature in order to survive. To regulate the body’s temperature we have to burn energy like a furnace: this is called thermogenesis. Thermogenesis increases after a large meal or when exposed to cold temperatures. Our body’s respond by interpreting two signals: internal body temp, and temp on the surface of the skin. A body responses to coldness by shivering the muscles and is not affect by inter-individual differences. No matter an individuals specific genetic make-up, the body will respond to the cold similarly, by constricting surface blood vessels (in response to skin temp) and shivering (in response to internal temp). But many factors, besides thermogenesis, can affect how we feel the level of coldness.
There is a popular belief that people with more body fat and higher BMI’s stay warmer in the cold. While this may be partially true due to the fact that extra subcutaneous fat helps insulate the core body temperature, it’s not always the case. Remember the other signal a body pays attention to is the temperature on the skin? Typically people with higher BMI’s have more relative surface area translating into more cooled skin from decreased blood flow in blood vessels to prevent heat loss. Another factor to consider is an individual’s muscle mass. Muscle have more blood flow and require more energy to maintain than does fat. A person with more muscle mass will naturally have a higher rate of metabolism (burning energy) and more blood flow could increase the amount of heat the body produces. There is also the age-old notion that women are always colder than men. Well, that is true. The combination of lower muscle mass and higher surface area in women provides them with a scientific excuse to being cold. Regardless of fat, muscle, or gender a body is, being cold really boils down to body size and surface to volume ratio. A good example is the polar bear: they have large, compact bodies with relatively small surface areas from which they can lose their internally produced heat.
Biology out of the way, what about cultural differences? Are people who grew up and live in colder climates more “adapted” to the cold? Can they withstand the cold better than a southern implant? No race of people have been selectively bred to survive conditions that others could not. But cultural groups make different types of adaptations to account for their regional climate. If a person has grown up in a colder climate, chances are they have learned how to escape the cold by either clothing, buildings, heating, and/or food intake. Same with people growing up in southern climates- but they’ve learned to live in heat and/or humidity. This means every single person has preconceived notions of why they like the hot, cold, sunny, rainy, windy, etc. environments. Everyone has their preferences.
And as for the cold making one sick, that is false. The cold weather does not cause people to get sick- that’s an old wive’s tale. The cold does increase the chance of certain factors that may make it easier to catch a cold. As outdoor temperatures drop, people may spend more time inside around people increasing the chances of catching the cold virus. The drier air of winter creates a lower humidity that helps the virus survive longer while airborne. So the actual temperature is not what makes people sick, it’s the potential environments people find themselves in during the colder months.
The best way to stay healthy in the cold months is to actually go outside (or inside) to exercise and maintain a healthy, whole foods diet. There are also other factors that play into coldness for certain individuals. Some people have thyroid issues or Reynaud’s syndrome which biologically does make a body react to cold much differently and makes the cold much colder.
So are northerners more adapted to the cold? Biologically speaking- no. Culturally speaking- probably. There’s not definitive answer to this question. It really depends on an individuals personal preference and preconceived notions of weather.