Why Do Some People Feel Hotter or Colder Than Others?
When people’s temperature preferences are wildly different, it affects their social interactions — at workplaces, house parties, or even in the bedrooms we share with partners. Fierce debates about air conditioner and thermostat settings in offices and homes are familiar. But, if everyone’s body temperature stays somewhere around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, why do we feel temperatures so differently?
The circulatory system is the main regulator of body temperature. When you feel hot, blood vessels dilate to allow more blood to pass through them, increasing blood flow to the skin, where excess heat is released. When you feel cold, blood vessels constrict, keeping blood away from the skin and closer to core organs, thereby conserving heat. So, anything that interferes with circulation can influence to what extent we feel hot or cold when others don’t our perceptions of temperature — from rare conditions like Raynaud’s disease to more common conditions like peripheral artery disease, anemia, or even stress.
“If you’re stressed, your autonomic nervous system kicks in, causing blood to move toward your body’s core organs,” making you feel hotter, explains Michael Lynch, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist in Washington, D.C. Consuming spicy foods, caffeine, and alcohol can also raise our heart rates, making us feel hot and sweaty.
Our diverse body shapes and sizes are also responsible for differences in how we experience the same temperature. “If something is bigger and you’re waiting for it to cool down, it will take longer to cool down because the heat sink is larger,” says Ollie Jay, a researcher of physiology at the University of Sydney.
“… Women typically have less muscle mass and evaporate less heat through the pores in their skin,” making them “feel colder than men in a room with the same air temperature,” Dr. Rob Danoff, a physician from Philadelphia, explains. Research also suggests women’s core body temperatures are often higher than men, and when one’s body is warm, colder air feels even cooler.
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Even when bodies are the same size, the amount of body fat inside can vary — and affect how cold or hot we feel in comparison to others. The greater the amount of body fat, the warmer one feels. Older people often might feel colder than younger people, as the fat layer under the skin that conserves heat thins with age. Similarly, people who have inadequate body fat, for instance, due to an illness like anorexia, may also feel colder than people with sufficient or excess fat stores.
Finally, anything that affects our metabolism — the process of converting food to energy — also affects our perception of temperature. Often, women have a lower metabolic rate than men do, which means their bodies produce less heat, making them feel colder. Similarly, hypothyroidism — when the body does not make enough of the thyroid hormone, which controls basic metabolic functions — can make someone feel colder than others. Depression or even just social isolation can also contribute to a slower thyroid, thereby slowing metabolism and making one feel cold.
Given the sheer number of factors that influence our perception of temperatures, no wonder we find ourselves bickering so often on the temperature settings of air conditioners and thermostats.