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Cold comfort: Frigid temps offer some health benefits along with risks

From thinking more clearly to burning more calories, here are a few benefits of cold temperatures.

Cool temperatures do not, apparently, deplete the body’s store of energy as quickly as hot temperatures do.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

As temperatures plummet, certain health risks shoot upward. Not only are we at danger (if we don’t bundle up properly) of frostbite and hypothermia, but many of us are also at an increased risk of having a heart attack.

But are cold temps only hazardous to our health? Or can they also be beneficial to our physical and psychological well-being?

Apparently, they can, at least according to some studies. So, today, while Minnesotans shiver through yet another bitterly cold day, I thought I’d try to warm everybody’s spirits by focusing on the positive side — from a health standpoint — of living in a cold climate.

It’s probably cold comfort, but here’s what I found after a quick search of the literature:

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Cold temperatures may help us think more clearly.
Scientists have found that we perform better at a variety of cognitive tasks, from proofreading a document for grammatical errors to choosing the most cost-effective cellphone plan, when we’re sitting in a cool rather than in a warm room. Cool temperatures do not, apparently, deplete the body’s store of energy (glucose) as quickly as hot temperatures do. And the brain needs that energy, of course, to think clearly.

Cold temperatures may help us burn more calories.
When temperatures fall, our bodies tend to form “brown” rather than white fat. Brown fat works a bit like muscle. It has special heat-producing cells that burn extra calories. Brown fat also appears to lower circulating levels in the body of triglycerides and blood sugar, and therefore may, say some scientists, play a role in reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Cold temperatures may make us less irritable.
Polish researchers have reported (although not yet in a peer-reviewed journal) that we tend to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies during the cold winter months than during the hot summer ones. This finding, they and others speculate, may be why some studies have found people tend to be less irritable and angry (and less likely to commit crimes) in winter than in summer.

Cold temperatures may help us sleep better.
When you’re in a cooler room, it’s easier to fall asleep. That’s because your body temperature needs to drop a bit to induce your brain to sleep. While there is no single temperature that helps everyone fall asleep, some research suggests that temperatures in the range of 60 to 66 degrees Fahrenheit are best. Cranking down the thermostat is much easier, of course, when it’s cold outside.

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Cold temperatures may help us spend more time — at least on the phone — with people we care about.
British researchers found that during “uncomfortable” weather — such as when temps take a turn for the cold — people spend more time talking on their phones, primarily with close friends and family. That can be a good thing, as our mood tends to improve when we feel connected to other people.

Cold temperatures can help us appreciate warmer days more (when they finally get here).
Day after day of warm, sunny weather doesn’t necessarily make people happier, research has shown. In fact, one study found that 27 percent of adults are “summer haters” — people whose moods worsen when days are balmy and clear.

Yet, as another study found, when a warm, bright day suddenly follows a string of cold, dark ones, people’s moods do often perk up. “There appears to be something uniquely uplifting about warm days in the spring,” the authors of that study wrote.

That’s something we can all look forward to.