Well! It seems winter has caught us in its icy grip! The Village looks beautiful with every grove and roof sparkling white, but it is just a touch chilly.
In circumstances like these, some people may well reach for a beer; alcohol has a long and vibrant reputation as a warming agent. After all, think of Winter Warmers: they are usually brewed to a higher alcohol level to take the edge off the cold. Or St. Bernard dogs, carrying brandy to travellers lost in deep snow.
But does alcohol actually protect you from the cold?
Alcohol can make you feel warmer, but as it’s a deceptive warmth. Alcohol causes blood vessels to dilate, bringing blood to the surface of the skin. This is why people who have been imbibing looked flushed. Extra blood close to the skin’s surface raises the body’s external temperature; you feel warm, and the skin is warm to the touch.
Unfortunately, dilating the blood vessels is the exact opposite of what the body usually does in the cold. You know how your fingers and toes get pinched after time outside, or how people can sometimes have a waxy, pale look? That’s because the body reacts to cold by constricting blood vessels. By bringing blood away from the skin and extremities, the body can keep it close to the vital organs and maintain core body temperature.
When blood is close to the skin’s surface, that can’t happen. So, while the face may appear flushed and warm, core body temperature is actually dropping. And the story doesn’t stop there. The superficial warmth created by blood vessel dilation makes you sweat, which lowers body temperature even further. But because you feel warm, you may not realize. Add in impaired judgement after a few drinks, and you have a potentially dangerous situation.
Oh, and there’s one more thing: alcohol is a depressant. It slows down the nervous system. That means it reduces your body’s ability to shiver, depriving you of another means of staying warm.
So really, given all of that, alcohol is about the worst thing for a body in the cold. It’s like a domino chain of negative effects.
Although popular opinion celebrated whisky and beer as a means of fighting off the cold, Victorians were aware of alcohol’s effects on the body. In his Temperance Lesson Book, Dr. Benjamin Ward Richardson cautions, “It is a sense of warmth that is felt, not an actual warmth that is given to the body” (147). He claims that alcohol weakens the small blood vessels. In their enfeebled state, they can’t resist the force of blood being pumped from the heart – and so, the blood is carried closer to the surface of the skin.
Which is pretty much it, really. He also states that the drop in core body temperature can be as much as 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit, which means it can exacerbate and complicate hypothermia (onset of which can begin between 90-9 degrees Fahrenheit).
Fortunately, our brewery is warm and cosy; and in 2014, we usually don’t have to walk several miles through cold and snow to get home. As with many things, knowledge is power – enjoy those special seasonal brews, but stay safe!
Richardson, Dr. Benjamin Ward. The Temperance Lesson Book. New York: National Temperance Society and Publication House, 1880.