Home Health The damage that cold can do to your body – health time bomb

The damage that cold can do to your body – health time bomb

The damage that cold can do to your body – health time bomb

Millions of people are facing an ice cold reality of huddling under blankets to stay warm this winter to keep money for food on tables as spiralling energy costs leaving many unable to heat their homes.

On top of the financial and emotional burden placed on people, the energy crisis has also created an underlying health time bomb.

Heart attacks and strokes, as well as hypothermia are all potential risks to the body and its function, when in cold conditions for long periods of time.

When you are sitting in the house feeling cold your body is making adjustments to keep you safe and well, but they come at a cost.

“The body is working jolly hard at 10 degrees” is how one university professor described the matter.

Jolly hard to survive.

Life in all its forms is a biological masterpiece.

Organs such as the heart, liver and brain are capable of transferring data with 100% accuracy to perform highly precise functions to keep the body running at safe and sustainable levels.

It is instinctive information held in genes that tells penguins to huddle as one to withstand the horrendously cold Antarctic blasts.

The saltwater crocodile automatically knows to bathe in the baking sun of Australia to heat up its engine before going about its devastatingly brutal lifestyle and hunt and survive.

From the blubber packed 150-ton blue whale to the million-strong ant colonies with all individuals acting as one organism to achieve success for the common good.

Life in all manner of creatures has mastered the function and equipment necessary to survive.

Then we come to what remains the greatest mystery in evolutionary history – the human body.

Such is the leap in intelligence and capability of the human brain, we have evolved differently from our animal counterparts.

Our knowledge to control fire has prevented the need for us to grow shaggy coats or thick fur. We get to wear our own fashion branded and celebrity endorsed insulating garments, if we choose to.

Cunning, patience and planning – the ability to hunt, farm and fish – means large fangs, venom, claws or stamina were not necessary body features for humans to nourish themselves throughout our time on earth.

However, as global warming causes species such as the Polar Bear to face a heartwrenching struggle to evolve and survive, we humans too, face our own never-ending period of adaptation.

With industrialisation across all corners of the globe, humankind has not only created a pressure cooker planet that sees millions of species fight for their very future, it has also seen a worldwide chasm of its own – between wealth and poverty.

This divide can be seen in all countries, and one of the most pressing concerns regarding this is the issue of people heating their homes.

The global panic around fuel supply has seen energy costs sky rocket, and caused a realisation than millions of people can now not afford to effectively heat their homes.

One person who has seen the problem at its harshest is Belfast foodbank volunteer Paul Doherty.

Each week he sorts and delivers out food parcels packed with cereals, soup, beans, pasta, nappies and much more to help those struggling in the Northern Irish capital.

However, as well as struggling to put food on the table, people are also unable to heat their home and Doherty admitted conversations with locals are increasingly turning towards the cost of heating.

“To be honest with you, it’s people at their wit’s end. You’re seeing the worry and despair in their face.

“We’re seeing whole families sitting round a dinner table wearing coats. That is a reality. I’ve seen that multiple times.”

Ambulance workers in Glasgow have reported visiting homes which feel ice cold, where the patients are clearly struggling to cope.

Tanya and Will work as ambulance crew in the east of the Scottish city. They seem how serious the issues can become.

Tanya said: “It is sad to see people are living like that.

“There’s been quite a few patients I have been out to who can’t afford to buy food. They have to choose one or other, heating or food.

“So they’ll sit quietly at home and it’s usually a relative or a friend who will phone for them as they don’t want to bother anybody.

“They’re sitting there and you can’t get a temperature off them because they’re so cold.

“So you take them into hospital because they are not managing. You know if you leave that person at home they are probably going to die through the fact they are so cold.”

Temperatures in Scotland have plummeted below -10 during this winter and about 44 people a day were taken to hospital suffering from hypothermia.

Will explained the problems for patients sitting at home in freezing conditions: “If they are not turning the heating on they are not going to feel better.

“Respiratory illnesses and seasonal bugs take hold much easier if they are not able to look after their basic needs such as food and heating.

“If they are not able to keep on top of that then they will get sick.”

An experiment was carried out by BBC journalist James Gallaher to see what harm to the body was caused by living in an unheated home.

He visited the University of South Wales and was made subject of the test by Professor Damian Bailey, who summarised: “Ten degrees is the average temperature that people will be living in, if they can’t afford to heat their homes.”

The scientists measured how Gallaher’s body performed at a 21C, before temperatures were dropped to see what variations occurred.

Prof Bailey described the brain is tasting the patient’s blood and sending signals to the rest of the body.

The body needs to keep its core, which include the major organs such as heart and liver, at 37C.

At 18C, Gallaher described the hairs on his arms were starting to stand up to help insulate his body.

As the experiment continues the temperatures dropped and blood vessels in hands are the next sacrifice made by the body to keep warm blood its critical organs.

At this point women are affected more than men as oestrogen in their blood vessels are more likely to constrict.

At 11.5C the body begins to shiver so that its muscles can generate heat.

The instinctive brain will adapt and distribute its resources to maintain critical functions of the body but there are shortages in logical thinking as displayed by Gallaher’s downturn in success of a shape-sorting game.

He commented: “I wouldn’t want to be trying to do school homework in a cold room or to have this compound something like dementia.”

Professor Bailey explained the increased risk of harm as temperatures drop. He said: “Science tells us that 18 degrees is the tipping point… the body is now working to defend that core temperature.

“The body is working jolly hard at 10 degrees. That increasing blood pressure is a risk factor for a stroke, it’s a risk factor for a heart attack.

“You’re delivering less blood to the brain, so there’s less oxygen and less glucose sugar getting into the brain and the downside of that is it’s having a negative impact on your mental gymnastics.

The cold also causes the blood itself to thicken which increased the risk of a dangerous blockage.

Professor Bailey concluded: “The evidence clearly suggests that cold is more deadly than the heat, there are a higher number of deaths caused through cold snaps than there are through the heat snaps.

“So I really do think that more recognition needs to be paid for the dangers associated with cold.”

Icy conditions also allow many infections such as flu and pneumonia thrive as inflammation in the lungs is more common.

The cold hard reality is that many cannot afford to heat their home day and night throughout the winter and the advice from Professor Baily is one of common sense and practicality.

He described it as “preparing for a mountaineering expedition”.

Some of the best ways to stay warm are to wear clothes made of great insulating materials such as wool, wear gloves socks and hats to prevent loss of crucial body heat and generate body heat by moving around and not just sitting watching TV.

The body is capable of protecting itself, but a few sensible tips will help you maintain its resources and fend of the long winter cold.