Logic on the rocks

3 Jul

Flickr – Creative Commons

Last week my boyfriend and I were discussing how to stay cool while attending an upcoming outdoor wedding and reception, on a day that was forecasted to be about 93 degrees and something like 80-percent humidity. He wondered if drinking alcohol would help us stay cool — as there would be an open bar at the reception.

“You lose body heat when you drink alcohol,” he said. “That’s why you’re not supposed to go outside without a coat during the winter when you’re drinking.”

This coming from a guy who only wears a coat if the temperature is subzero. Maybe.

“What? Does drinking alcohol make you lose heat?” I hadn’t heard this before. And while my boyfriend acts as if he knows more than he does quite often, sometimes he does actually know what he’s talking about. (Don’t tell him. It might go to his head.)

He found several web pages, like this one, that supported his argument and said, “If it makes you lose heat in the cold, wouldn’t that be a good thing in hot weather?”

Well, this is a compelling argument, but I’m not quite sold. We both agreed that finding an expert to verify or refute this urban legend of sorts is the best course of action.

As this summer is turning out to be pretty hot no matter where you are, I thought this could be great barbecue conversation fodder. If the boyfriend was right, we could be heroes among our friends by telling them that their cold alcoholic beverages were indeed keeping them cooler — science says so! If he wasn’t right, then I could enjoy yet one more situation where he was proven wrong — and this time with science.

Enter Dr. W. Larry Kenney. He is a professor of physiology and kinesiology at Penn State, and is particularly interested in human thermoregulation and the biophysics of heat exchange. Perfect!

I wrote him a note with our dilemma. He quickly got back to me.

“It is actually a myth that alcohol causes you to lose body heat, winter or summer,” Kenney replied. “Alcohol sometimes leads to hypothermia in winter months because it leads people to make poor decisions about clothing, shelter, etc. Physiologically [there is] little impact.”

Kenney pointed me to a study that was done in 1980 where participants consumed the equivalent of “five bar whiskey drinks” and had their body heat loss measured. As Kenney told me, the researchers found that the subjects’ heat loss was not affected by their alcohol consumption. Slightly more interesting, I thought, was that the researchers tested three groups of participants — heavily clothed, seminude and nude — for whom the results were the same.

I’ll let that sink in for a second… Who says research can’t be fun?

OK. Back to what Kenney had to say about alcohol and summertime imbibing.

“The water content of most alcoholic beverages helps maintain hydration similar to other fluids, at least up through moderate consumption,” he says.

Boyfriend says he knew that. Of course he did.

So I leave you with this thought: whether you are heavily clothed, seminude or nude, you will not lose body heat because you are consuming alcohol. You might lose body heat because you are nude. Or you might just get strange looks for being heavily clothed in July.

If you drink, do so responsibly and no matter what always stay hydrated! Your drinks will only keep you as cold as you serve them.

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One Response to “Logic on the rocks”

  1. AJM July 3, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    Very interesting! Does this also mean that the big dog with a barrel of whiskey around its neck will not be a life saver if you are stranded in arctic weather? Shucks.

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