1. Getting all bundled up to go out during the winter can get really annoying.
It’s cold AF outside, but you’re sweating the second you walk into a party or bar. Then you have to find somewhere to stash your jacket where it a) will not get spilled on and b) will not get stolen. And even if there is a coat check, you have to wait in a long line and pay money and everyone always loses that tiny paper ticket anyways, right? It’s the worst.
2. But you’ve probably heard of the magical myth of a ~beer jacket~ or ~alcohol blanket~ or whatever other phrase you use to convince yourself that you don’t actually need that puffer coat.
You know, that warm feeling you get from drinking lots of alcohol. The idea is that even if you don’t have a real jacket on, the warmth from alcohol will keep you from feeling frozen.
3. But does alcohol actually keep you warm or is that a lie?
BuzzFeed Health reached out to two experts to find out: Kenneth Warren, PhD, advisor to the director at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and Dr. David Raslau, an internist at the Mayo Clinic.
FYI: We’re talking about getting drunk — not just having one drink. So that’s typically at least three to five drinks, the experts say, or a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08. Obviously that’s way above the NIAAA’s definition of moderate drinking, so — to be clear — we’re not condoning this. But consider this a friendly PSA anyway (*cough* college students, we’re looking at you.)
4. First of all, alcohol does make you feel warm or flushed because it dilates the blood vessels under your skin.
The first thing alcohol will do is affect the skin, says Raslau, so you can start to feel warm pretty soon after drinking. “Alcohol is a vasodilator, which means it widens the tiny blood vessels called capillaries right under skin, so they quickly fill with warm blood,” says Warren.
The result? Your skin feels warm or hot, and you can get flushed and start sweating a little bit. It usually starts in the cheeks and face then spreads to the rest of your body. So there’s a big sensation of warmth, says Raslau, but it’s just surface-level because it’s literally only your skin that’s warm.
5. But this actually means you’re losing heat from your skin’s surface, so your core temperature drops.
When your skin becomes flushed that means blood (and therefore heat) is being pushed out towards skin where it gets lost. This is actually how the body is supposed to react when it’s very hot outside and its trying to get rid of heat, Warren says. So alcohol causes an actual drop in core body temperature before you even go outside.
It’s a paradox, Raslau says, because your feel the sensation of being warm but your body temperature is actually dropping.
6. And the alcohol will keep telling your body to release heat from your skin, even when you go out in the cold.
This is why you might still feel that warm, flushed feeling even after the alcohol caused your core temperature to drop. Alcohol impairs your body’s ability to realize it needs to stop dilating your capillaries and sending blood to the skin in order to prevent your internal temperature from getting too low. “It’s as if your body is in permanent ‘on mode’ for releasing heat from the skin’s surface,” Raslau says.
Your body’s natural response to pull blood away from the skin so it can warm itself up is impaired by alcohol’s vasodilation activity in the skin, says Raslau. So you still feel warm in a superficial way even if you’re rapidly losing heat.
7. Alcohol also messes with the part of our brain that controls thermoregulation, so your body has trouble warming back up.
After alcohol affects the skin, it affects the part of your brain that controls body temperature: the brainstem. “Your brainstem uses thermoregulation to adjust the body to hot or cold environments, so you can maintain a steady core temperature (about 98.6 degrees fahrenheit),” Warren says. We need thermoregulation to survive and protect our vital organs — extremely low or high body temperatures can lead to brain damage, cardiac arrest, and death.
In the cold, your brainstem normally thermoregulates by doing several things. “It should be constricting blood vessels in the skin and extremities to pull blood back to the internal organs — which is why your hands and feet get cold first or turn blueish — pushing blood to the heart, and forcing your body to shiver because the quick movements generate heat,” Raslau says. But alcohol impairs the brainstem, so these mechanisms don’t always happen.
“Drunk people think they aren’t shivering because they aren’t cold, but in reality they aren’t shivering because the alcohol is preventing thermoregulation,” Raslau says. So you become like a cold-blooded reptile, the experts say, and your body temperature drops with the cold air outside instead of adjusting to stay warm.
8. And finally, alcohol also dulls the brain’s ability to sense that you’re freezing — so you can’t really tell this is happening.
When you go outside in the cold after you lose thermoregulation, your body temperature will fall significantly, Warren says. But many drunk people still don’t feel freezing. Why? Booze actually dulls the brain’s ability to sense that you’re cold.
“Alcohol works like an anesthetic in the body because once it enters the bloodstream and hits the brain, it turns down our nerve response to stimuli like the cold so you aren’t as aware of it,” says Raslau.
So if you’ve been drinking and you pop outside to see whether it’s cold enough for a jacket, you might be misjudging the actual temperature. “You end up making decisions about being outside in the cold based on inaccurate information because your brain’s senses are all messed up,” Raslau says.
9. Why is this an issue? Well, it can lead to hypothermia, and people have actually died this way.
Hypothermia occurs when your internal temperature falls below 95 degrees, to a point where your heart, nervous system, and other vital organs can’t function normally — if untreated, it can lead to heart or respiratory failure. Other cold-related injuries include frostnip, frostbite, nerve damage, and loss of appendages, Raslau says (and here’s one example). It can happen at as high as 50 degrees fahrenheit, but it’s much more common in lower temperatures below freezing or 32 degrees fahrenheit.
Obviously, this all depends on how much alcohol you drank, how cold it is outside, and how long you’re exposed to the cold, Warren says. We’re not trying to be paranoid here or insinuate that you’ll get hypothermia every time you step outside with no jacket. But if you’re going to be out in the cold for more than five minutes, or you plan to walk to and from places while drunk, bundle up appropriately.
Alcohol-related hypothermia is more common than you think, the experts say, especially at colleges. “People have died from hypothermia after drinking because they don’t know their core temperature is dangerously low, then they pass out or fall asleep drunk outside,” Warren says. So your risk is higher if you’re alone, since this could happen with no one noticing.
10. And the “beer jacket theory” is also dangerous because it pretty much promotes binge drinking.
You probably know it’s not healthy or safe to drink a ton in one sitting. So doing it for the purpose of staying warm on your walk to the bar also isn’t recommended.
Not only can drinking too much dull your ability to sense the cold, but it could lead to alcohol poisoning or injury. “The brain stem, which gets impaired by alcohol, also controls breathing and heart rate in addition to body temperature— so a very high dose of alcohol can stop the heart from beating and lead to death,” says Warren.
11. So if you’re planning on being outside for more than five minutes, it’s worth it to bring a jacket.
“The beer jacket theory is just a conclusion people have come up with from their personal experiences drinking — but we know it’s a counterintuitive sensation of warmth, and alcohol actually lowers your core temperature,” Warren says. So both experts agree that the smartest thing you can do is to be aware of how alcohol affects your body, and wear a real jacket if it’s cold outside. The risks just aren’t worth it — especially if you’ll be walking alone.
Not to mention, getting drunk and exposing yourself to the winter elements every weekend can take a big toll on your body and lower your resistance to colds, says Raslau. And no one needs that during flu season, right?
12. And if it’s below freezing outside or snowing and you’re still considering leaving your jacket at home?
Just don’t do it. We don’t even have to tell you why this is a million times more risky than going out when it’s just really cold outside.
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