Why do people react to the same temperature differently?
I am always cold. Like if it's below 70 degrees, I'm wearing a hoodie and gloves. My ex, on the other hand, would walk around Vancouver in winter without a proper jacket if I didn’t pester her. This seemed like a cute, innocuous difference between us at first, but ultimately it led to divorce. JK, but once we moved in together, it really did feel like we were constantly fighting over the thermostat. Do humans really feel temperature differently? Why are we like this? I want to talk to doctors about how we can acclimate to the personal weather patterns of the people we love.
Nature vs. nurture
First of all, yes, people really do experience the temperature quite differently. There are a lot of personal, physiological, social, and circumstantial factors that play into this. Like so many things, one of the most important variables is location, location, location. “Our brains are also really good at acclimatizing to the local environment,” sas Chelsie Rohrscheib, a neuroscientist in Michigan. For example, someone in Australia will probably feel comfortable on 85-degree days, Rohrscheib explains, whereas someone like her, from say the midwest, would find it pretty uncomfortable.
In other words, our bodies and brains work together to keep us feeling comfortable in the climates we grow up in. Because human bodies have a pretty large range of what can be considered a “comfortable” temperature, Rohrscheib says, you adjust to the climate you live in pretty early in life. If you grew up in a hot climate, what you consider to be hot or cold is going to be different to someone from a cold climate. In other words, how warm or cool a person feels right now may have a lot to do with the climate they lived in as a child, even if they have been living someplace with a different climate for more than a minute.
Your body type
Second, there are a lot of personal factors that dictate how we perceive temperature — like body mass index, height, gender assignment, and metabolism. You’ve probably heard that people who don’t have a lot of body fat tend to be colder. Rohrscheib says that’s generally true, but she adds that having more body mass isn’t always more comfortable, temperature-wise. “People with a higher BMI are less likely to feel cold because their core has more insulation but the downside is that they're also more likely to be uncomfortable at higher temperatures,” says Rohrscheib.
Surprisingly, height also plays a role that has nothing to do with fat or muscle. I sort of assumed that taller people have more muscle or fat to keep them warm. That is definitely not the case. Rohrscheib explains that taller people are actually more likely to be sensitive to cold because their hearts have to work a little bit harder to circulate blood flow. Simply put, because human hearts are generally around the same size, but taller people have more body to pump blood through, that makes it harder for the blood — which creates warmth in the body — to circulate.
Then, there’s the whole gender myth. It seems like a total cliche to say that women are always cold. We don’t abide by the binary ‘round here, but some scientists do believe that folks assigned female at birth may be more sensitive to cold. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why. “For reasons we don't completely understand, female-assigned people have a more sensitive vascular response to the cold, which means the blood flow is reduced to their extremities sooner,” explains Rohrscheib. “Male-assigned people also have more muscle than female-assigned people,” she says. That muscle helps male-assigned people feel warmer, Rohrscheib explains, because like fat, muscle also helps insulate the body from heat loss.
Metabolism plays a role because it affects your core body temperature — the weather on the inside of your body. People with high metabolisms literally run hot, meaning their core temperature is higher, and people with slower metabolisms run cold. There are some kinds of imbalances that can affect this, too, like hyperthyroidism — an overactive thyroid gland. Hyperthyroidism, Rohrscheib says, can slow metabolism and cause a drop in core body temperature. Hypothyroidism can do the opposite.
Your relative physical and emotional wellbeing also plays a role in how resilient you are to temperature. “Healthier individuals are better able to regulate their core temperature,” says Rohrscheib. That doesn’t mean you’re unhealthy if you are heat- or cold-sensitive, but it does mean that taking care of the things we should all be doing anyways — like eating well, getting enough sleep, and getting exercise — are the also easiest strategies for becoming temperature resilient.
Okay, great, you might be thinking, but you can’t change overnight and you definitely can’t change bae, It’s now glaringly evident that feeling temperatures differently is a thing — so what do you do if you share space with someone who has a dramatically different experience than you? “I recommend finding the temperature sweet spot,” says Rohrscheib. Unfortunately, the “sweet spot,” as Rohrsceib describes probably isn’t going to be perfect for either party. “It may mean that both you and your partner are a little uncomfortable but it's better than one person feeling great while the other suffers,” she says. Basically, the bad news is that no one is going to be 100 percent comfortable. The good news is that relationships are about compromise. Rainbow flower heart side eye emoji.
The most difficult compromises have to do with sleeping temperature. Rohrscheib, who specializes in sleep science and is a consultant for Tatch, a company that makes sleep trackers, says that sleeping with a partner who is different from you, temperature wise, can cause a lot of problems. “Intolerance to heat and cold can really mess up our sleep,” she says, and the effects it has on us aren’t just physically depleting. They’re also emotional.
“When we're too hot or too cold, our brain has to go into overdrive to maintain our core temperature, this can lead to a drop in our mood,” explains Rohrscheib. “It also becomes hard to concentrate when you're physically uncomfortable.” So not only are you grouchy and groggy when you wake up in the middle of the night too hot or cold, but you may also lack the focus required to effectively problem solve the situation.
Luckily, getting warmer or cooler isn’t actually that hard if you plan for it. This is where folks who have a tendency to feel cold may have a teensy bit of temperature privilege that they need to keep in check. In general, it's easier for a cold person to rug up than it is for a hot person to cool down, says Rohrscheib. “You can always add layers to your clothing but once you're stripped down to your underwear, it's more difficult to get cooler if you're in a hot environment.” So if you’re the cold person in the relationship, sorry, but you may have to keep an extra blanket handy. Yeah, I’m mad about it too.
That doesn’t mean that folks who run hot are off the hook when it comes to compromise, though. There’s a lot of technology made to keep us cool, Rohrscheib points out. Air conditioning and fans can be both expensive and loud, but there are also less grating technologies. When it comes to sleeping in a room that is slightly too cool for you, hot person, you are also gonna have to plan ahead. “Hot sleepers can cool themselves down by wearing cotton fabrics and using cotton bedding or cooling mats.”