Fresher at home? In fact, we are spoiled children

Europe is moving to room temperature of 19 degrees, which is colder than many have been used to in years. The good news is: we can cope quite well.

At the beginning of this week it is time. Summer ended very brutally with one look at the thermostat at home. For the first time in months, the temperature that started with 2 didn’t show up. There was on display, the new normal for the colder months to come, and possibly many winters after that: 19 degrees. Where were those slippers again?

To save energy, the button goes down with one or two presses almost everywhere in Europe, to 19. It is also becoming the new standard in government buildings, offices, shops and schools. And for our homes, it’s widely recommended as a way to reduce the bill by just a few percent. It’s at least a degree or two lower than people are used to. Some people get chills just thinking about it.


In the early 1960s, as a test, the US Army had a group of men spend eight hours a day naked in an 11-degree room. After two weeks they more or less stopped shivering.

The new room temperature is a consensus between what is possible and what is somewhat comfortable. “There is no magic number,” said Mike Tipton, a professor at the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. We are thermophilic wild animals, originating in warm East Africa. Hence we feel better naked or lightly dressed between 26 and 28 degrees. This gives a skin temperature of 33 degrees, 4 degrees below basal body temperature, the level at which we live comfortably for everyone anywhere in the world. To adapt to heat, we have more physiological mechanisms, such as sweating or the widening of blood vessels under the skin, to maintain that skin temperature compared to cold. And so we need to move more quickly to technological aids, such as thick clothing. And with these clothes on, the temperature we find comfortable can drop to the 21 to 22 degrees we took for granted until this energy crisis.

“Basically, we used our brain, the pinnacle of human evolution, to spread from our original location to all corners of the planet and still maintain that skin temperature,” Tipton says. “The problem is that our minds have also led us into a negative spiral in this way, because the constant recreation of that tropical microclimate consumes a lot of energy and that consumption is at the root of climate change.”

There’s no reason why we can’t lower the ambient temperature a little further to 19 degrees, says Jean Bourgeois, professor of exercise physiology in the Jacques Rogge Sports Science Laboratory at the University of Ghent. We’ll just have to compensate for this adjustment a little more with an extra layer of insulation around our skin and a little bit of movement to boost blood flow. “The experience of a cold can vary greatly from person to person,” Bourgeois says. “But it’s simple: just dress accordingly.” Blood flow is important to the parts of the body that are most sensitive to heat: the hands and feet. The feel of our ends is a major factor in our comfort, so it’s important to keep them warm. Their temperature depends solely on your core temperature and adequate blood flow, so periodic exercise is the message.

Habituation in the brain

Can we physically get used to a lower ambient temperature? Can we now feel that what makes us goosebumps is completely normal a few months from now? Yes, experts say. There is scientific evidence that cold – whether it’s 19 degrees or lower – feels better – or less bad – at the end of winter than in the early weeks. The reverse is also true at the end of summer. We can even train this process. “It’s a classic habit, defined as a diminished response to a persistent stimulus,” Tipton and Bourgeois say. If you feel cold more than once, you will eventually have less physical reaction to it.

Habituation occurs deep in the brain, where the hypothalamus acts as the body’s thermostat. Records cold and heat receptors that are located near the surface of the skin. The input they receive and send to the nervous system remains the same under frequent cold. But the information is interpreted differently in the long run.

We must, certainly in rich countries, build up greater resilience in the face of the cold.

Mike Tipton

Professor at the Harsh Environments Laboratory

In the early 1960s, as a test, the US Army had a group of men spend eight hours a day naked in an 11-degree room. After two weeks they more or less stopped shivering. In a 2014 Lithuanian study, men were placed in a bath of water at 14 degrees for three hours for several consecutive days. After twenty days, they are no longer shivering and their superficial blood vessels are narrowed, their skin temperature is lower and their discomfort is less.

Then take a cold shower often enough? Tipton says that research into the link between higher exposure to cold water and habituation to lower air temperature has not been done in this way. “But I expect it helps, yeah. We hear a lot of people say they feel warm at home after a cold shower or a cold swim. Either way, exposure to cold water is associated with all sorts of beneficial health effects.”

Tipton also points out a small danger of getting used to the cold: unwanted hypothermia. Imagine an older person in a difficult socioeconomic situation. It lowers the thermostat for preservation, just touches the temperature, lowers more, gets used to it, etc. This can result in a core temperature that cools more than you’d like.

brown adipose tissue

There are purists who believe in extreme personalization. Dutch cold warrior Wim Hof, nicknamed the Iceman, urges people to stand up to the freezing cold in nothing more than swimming trunks and a T-shirt with breathing exercises and meditation. His training method attracts followers all over the world. One of his claims is that such habituation stimulates the production of brown adipose tissue, most of which we have as children due to a lack of muscle to shiver, but not anymore as adults. This tissue helps produce heat by breaking down glucose, among other things.

Brown adipose tissue was once hailed as the answer to all the problems surrounding heat retention. But this picture is complicated. “There are many claims and counterclaims,” ​​Tipton says. He sighs a little when he mentions Huff’s name. “I am all for someone who is promoting more activity and exercise, because we have become very inactive and have technical solutions to everything. But if advised to jump into the nearest river, it will kill more people than it saves. It is about doing it safely and responsibly. In the UK alone A 50 per cent increase in rescues can be attributed to a BBC programme, featuring Hove.”

The truth is that we have stopped exposing ourselves to large fluctuations in temperature. We go from one perfect room temperature to the next, and go out in the winter only in arctic-resistant jackets. “We can build up a little bit more resistance to cold, especially in rich countries,” Tipton says. We used to have this flexibility naturally, when we were still fishing in the heat during the day and living in the cold at night. But we have been able to control the environment around our skin to an ideal level.

“Actually, we are spoiled children,” Bourgeois says. We are a super breed that can survive in all conditions thanks to the aid of technology. But our body is no longer challenged, and thus has become less efficient. We still do not adequately expose our bodies to environmental factors, while each system must be trained or degraded. This way we can also arm ourselves against the cold.

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