As cold air settles across the country and winter approaches, many people are turning to hot beverages to keep the chill at bay.
While there is scientific data that demonstrates how these hot drinks affect the body, there is also research that shows our perceptions of these drinks play a role in how they make us feel.
Sharon Smalling, a clinical dietitian at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, said our bodies need to maintain a temperature of 98.6 degrees to function effectively. She said that when our brain detects a drop in temperature, it signals the body to react in two different ways.
“When you shiver, you create energy and heat,” Smalling said. “So it’s to help warm the inside, keep your internal organs warm.”
Smalling said the other method was to push hot blood to the extremities to ward off the cold.
Maybe that’s when we want to turn to a hot cup of coffee or hot chocolate to help with this process.
Hot drinks and you
Dr. Michael J. White, of HCA Healthcare Houston and Envision Physician Services, said your body senses heat from these beverages in two ways.
“First, you have the effects of heat on your hands when you’re holding the cup of coffee, and your body feels that heat,” White said. “You could feel the heat from the steam coming out of the coffee, and your body senses that heat. When that hot liquid hits your esophagus and stomach, your body really recognizes the heat.”
White said the hot liquid in your stomach can raise your body temperature a little, but not much.
“You have to think of most of your body as water,” White said. “You put some hot liquid in there. So it will temporarily raise your body temperature for a little while.”
Smalling said the temperature change is about 2.5 degrees and will only last about 20 minutes. After that, your temperature returns to what it was before you drank your hot drink.
It’s also a matter of perception
With this fleeting temperature change, White and Smalling agree that one of the main reasons we turn to hot beverages when it’s cold is perception.
A study published in 2008 have shown that we generally associate warm sensations with hot drinks.
“People said the person holding a hot drink actually seemed to have a warmer personality,” Smalling said.
Aim for those drinks
Smalling said if you really want to use a drink to keep warm, you need to focus on drinks that contain healthy fats and very little caffeine.
“The metabolism of fat will actually create energy, and the burning of calories will create heat and energy,” Smalling said. “So not just a decaffeinated coffee, but maybe a decaffeinated latte or a hot chocolate that wouldn’t have that much caffeine in it.”
Smalling said she had also seen research that showed Mongols in the time of Genghis Kahn drank hot yak milk to stay warm.
“So you can just imagine yak milk was very high in fat, and so, you know, it’s that metabolic rate that’s going up,” Smalling said.
White said you should also avoid alcoholic beverages if you’re aiming to warm up after a drink.
“It stops your body from thermally regulating itself, and your perception of cold really, really changes,” White said. “You’re not cold, but you’re not doing anything to warm yourself up, so you’re creating an even bigger problem.”
More effective ways to warm up
White and Smalling agree that there are far better ways than drinks to keep warm when it’s cold outside.
First, dress in layers. This creates an insulating blanket of warm air along your skin.
Second, cover your head, hands and feet. This is where you lose the most heat.