Hate sweater weather? These experts explain why you're always cold

Colder weather makes some of us especially miserable. Genetics, metabolism and where you were born all play a role

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 11, 2023 5:30AM (EDT)

Man in parka, hat and scarf frozen from the cold (Getty Images/cmannphoto)
Man in parka, hat and scarf frozen from the cold (Getty Images/cmannphoto)

Strolling through the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam recently, I came upon an arresting image, depicting the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. In it, the Spanish saint roasts on a bed of flaming coals, a look of transcendent ecstasy on his face. As I gazed upon it, I thought, that guy gets it.

It's not that I'm opposed to pumpkin spice or long nights or crunchy, golden leaves. It's that from that very first nip of fall in the air, I am perpetually, miserably freezing. My hands, wrapped around an ever present scalding cup of tea, are icy. My limbs, clad in the comforter that is my post Labor Day inside outfit, are studded in goose flesh. My fellow always-colds, I see you out there shivering when the thermometer dips below 70 degrees, and I feel your seasonal pain.

But why are we like this — and is there anything, short of moving to the equator, we can do about it?

The good news, according to Dr. Kathryn Brandt, chair of primary care at the University of New England Medical School, is that we're probably normal. "We all have different set points, and usually, nothing is wrong with you," she explains. "The base setup of where our thermostat has a lot of different things that play into it. Some of it is simply perception, and sensitivity to that." 

And some of it seems to be gender-related. I may fit the profile of that crabby lady who loathes the new energy-efficient heating system they installed in her apartment building, but there are a variety of factors that make females feel the temperature differently.

For starters, there are our hormones. A recent feature in Le Monde on gender and cold perception noted that "Testosterone inhibits the TRPM8 protein channel, which captures the cold through nerve terminals located under the skin. The level of this hormone in the male body determines thermo sensation." Meanwhile, "Estrogen significantly thickens the blood, which does not flow as easily to the extremities."

Women also tend to feel cold differently because of our typically smaller, less muscular physiques, though that vulnerability applies to all genders.

"It seems like wherever you had your developmental life preadolescence and adolescence tends to be where your thermostat is tuned."

"People with a higher percentage of body fat will probably feel warmer as the layer of fat helps retain body heat," says Dr. Johannes Uys, a general practitioner at Broadgate General in London. "Conversely, individuals with lower percentages of body fat will be more susceptible to getting cold. Equally, the amount of muscle a person has can also influence their heat retention. Muscles generate heat when they contract, so people with more muscle mass might feel warmer because of the increased amount of heat production." 

A classic example of these body types differences is in your office air conditioning — a temperature standard that a 2015 Dutch study revealed had been set with the comfort needs of suit-wearing, 155-pound, middle-aged men in mind.

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And our gender preferences in temperature may even be evolutionary. A 2021 study out of Tel Aviv University's School of Zoology posited that animals — including mammals — evolved different "heat-sensing systems… related, among other things, to the reproduction process and caring for offspring." Babies require warmth for survival, so females may have a certain embedded pull toward warmer environments. 

There are other factors as well, like our metabolism. Dr. Uys notes, "Those with higher metabolic rates tend to generate more heat, which can make them less sensitive to the cold." But he adds, "That said, our metabolic rate tends to drop as we get older, so this may also depend on our age, genetics, and bodily composition."

This helps explain why kids seem impervious to elements, and why it's always like an oven at your grandma's house. 

Our different responses to external temperatures may also be influenced by our baseline internal ones. Earlier this month, a JAMA investigation of "personalized temperature norms" challenged the golden standard of 98.6 and explored the baseline temperature range for "the coolest to the warmest individuals." And as Cleveland Clinic reports, "Any temperature below a certain threshold will induce a chill."

This is likely why my elder daughter, whose normal everyday body temperature is equivalent to my low grade fever, runs the AC all winter long and contentedly traveled around Scandinavia last January in shorts. I, in contrast, have been in Europe for a record-breaking heatwave and still sleep under a duvet at night.

Our relationship with the cold can also come down to cultural conditioning. "If people that that grew up in really warm climates get into a colder climate, they will tend to run cold, and that can last for a long time," observes Dr. Brandt. "It seems like wherever you had your developmental life preadolescence and adolescence tends to be where your thermostat is tuned. I think there's very complex genetics that play into that and where you feel good."

"I talked to my doctor and told him that maybe with time I would get used to it. And he said, 'No, you will not.'"

My friend Selin bears that out. Selin is from Turkey but now lives in Switzerland, after spending a few years in England. I knew we were kindred spirits soon after we met, when she vehemently rejected a proposal to go swimming. (If the water temperature isn't going to fog up a bathroom, I too remain solidly on the shore.)

"I have Mediterranean blood running through my veins," Selin says. "I don't like to use the word hate or hatred because it's so strong — but I can definitely use it for cold."

She recalls, "When I first moved to Switzerland, I talked to my doctor here and told him that maybe with time I would get used to it. And he said, 'No, you will not. You have to be born here; you have to face these weather conditions when you're a baby.'" Selin copes with the long winters with space heaters and thermal patches under her clothes. "We cannot change it," she says.

So what else can a cold person to do to stay relatively comfortable while her friends are giddily, I don't know, apple picking? Dr. Brandt recommends staying well hydrated (as feeling cold can be a sign of dehydration), and "keeping up regular exercise, doing strength training and building muscle mass or working on muscle to fat ratio" to jazz up your metabolic rate. 

Warm beverages can also do a lot to soothe your insides. I don't love tea, but it does the job. But Dr. Brandt also suggests broth with a little bit of salt, especially if, like me, "your blood pressure runs on the low side. Just don't go nuts with the salt," she warns. "That's a great way to warm up."

And don't forget to dress the part. "Long johns," Brandt says. "They're not very sexy, but they work. Try to keep as natural fibers as you can," she suggests, like merino wool or silk. "Look at some hiking places where they have very thin ones that breathe well and can add that that extra layer." And she says, "If you're lucky enough to not be allergic to wool, there's a reason the Brits wear it all the time. And certainly wear a hat. We all shed a lot of heat from our head." 

My animosity toward the cold is an obstacle, but at least it's a reliable one. If however you're experiencing a new sensitivity in any direction this season, it's worth checking out — especially if it's arising with other symptoms. Cold and numb hands and feet can be a warning sign of Raynaud's Phenomenon, circulatory issues and diabetes. Feeling unusually cold, along with others symptoms like fatigue, can accompany hypothyroidism.

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Nancy Mitchell, a registered nurse and a contributing writer at Assisted Living, says, "You might be anemic. The fewer blood cells you have, the poorer your circulation. As a result, people with anemia tend to feel colder even during temperate days. The main indicator is that anemia causes coldness in your extremities. You'll notice the palms of your hands or the soles of your feet are colder than the rest of your body. You may also notice that the tissue under your lower eyelid is suddenly pale, or you start losing your breath when performing routine tasks, like climbing stairs. It's worth seeing your healthcare practitioner if you have a combination of any of these symptoms."

"The big thing to watch for is a change," says Dr. Brandt. "If you've run hot all your life, and suddenly you're running cold, or you've run cold all your life and suddenly you're running hot — suddenly meaning on the order of months — that's something to take a look at."

But for those of us who simply run chronically chilly, we can just once again bundle up, wait for spring and be grateful for the great indoors. "When it's too cold out," says my friend Selin, "I really will not go out."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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