Does drinking alcohol really keep you warm?

Four for the road


Also in this week's column:

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 s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au


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