Time to invest in a new alcohol jacket?

My friends and I are getting ready to hit the town. It’s that mid-spring, weird time of the year that doesn’t really have a set temperature or reliable weather pattern. It’s warm outside, but it’s only now just 5 o’clock, so it’s going to get cooler, and fast.

‘Should I take a jacket?’ asks one of my friends.
‘I’m not,’ I laugh. ‘I’ll be wearing my alcohol jacket.’

Whether it’s a beer blanket, alcohol jacket, or you plan on ‘drinking yourself a coat’, the idea that alcohol can keep you warm is not a new concept. I know for sure that after a couple of drinks I’ll get that lovely, warm, cosy feeling that will negate my need for any kind of jacket or cardigan. It’s like, uni kid law.

But does alcohol really keep you warm on those chilly nights?

The author trying (and failing) to keep herself warm in the cold. Image by author.
The author trying (and failing) to keep herself warm in the cold. Image by author.

The truth is, all alcohol does is make you feel extra toasty. You see, ethanol, the alcohol present in those Saturday night drinks (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday for us students) is a vasodilator. This means that it dilates, or expands, your blood vessels, allowing more blood to pass through them. Normally, as you get colder, your blood vessels constrict, keeping your warm blood close to your vital internal organs. In contrast, as you warm up, your blood vessels dilate, and that hot blood is pumped to your extremities, allowing its heat to leave the body, and causing your core to cool down.

So, in fact, although alcohol may make you feel warmer, it is actually doing the opposite. The heat that is directed towards your skin during vasodilation comes from your core, and as this heat is lost, your core body temperature drops.

But what about a nice cold beer on a hot summer’s day? Man, just writing this is making me crave an ice-cold beer. And a hot summer’s day, for that matter. But will a cold beer cool you down? Well, we already know that alcohol makes you feel warmer, but actually decreases your body temperature. This would make it the perfect agent to cool you down on a hot day then, right?

Ice-cold beer can be oh so tempting on a hot summer's day. Image by Quinn Dombrowski [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr.
Ice-cold beer can be oh so tempting on a hot summer’s day. Image by Quinn Dombrowski [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr.
Wrong! According to one study, alcohol is what is referred to as a poikilothermic drug. This means that the effect of alcohol is dependent on the environment in which it is acting. Basically, alcohol works to inhibit thermoregulation mechanisms, meaning that a person’s ability to control their body temperature is greatly reduced.

The common situation, in which alcohol is taken in an environment with a low temperature, results in the person feeling warm, but their body temperature decreasing. In a very hot environment, however, a person’s ability to cool down will be compromised, and so they will become overheated, or hyperthermic. Add to that alcohol’s dehydrating effect, and any type of alcoholic beverage on a really hot day is a bad idea.

So, unfortunately, alcohol is not the answer, in any situation. In effect, it will make you colder in cold weather and warmer in hot weather. My (non-doctor’s) recommendations are to take a jacket out with you, no matter how much hassle it may cause. Or, even better, simply head home early to a hot chocolate, or to your favourite late-night fast food joint, to warm up.

8 Responses to “Time to invest in a new alcohol jacket?”

  1. Fiona Lynch says:

    @jiaz3, I agree, I think it’s fascinating, and something that majority of people probably don’t realise!

  2. Fiona Lynch says:

    @rosannav, the temperature of the drink itself probably doesn’t have much effect. The alcohol will act in just the same way as in a cold beer, I would think.

  3. jiaz3 says:

    Wahoo! really great to know this. My hometown people really like to drink cold beer in summer time, but they keep sweating, now I know why!

  4. rosannav says:

    Didn’t know about the poikilothermic stuff going on, cool!

    I wonder what happens when you drink mulled wine…

  5. Fiona Lynch says:

    Thanks @pmulcahy, neither did I until I started doing some research. The more you know!

  6. pmulcahy says:

    I knew it was a vasodilator (had to copy and paste that because I’m such a bad typer) and knew it lowered core body temperature. But I did not know that it was a poikilothermic drug and warmed you in warmer weather. That was fascinating, thanks!

  7. Fiona Lynch says:

    Thanks Sarah! I’ve definitely experienced the same thing!

  8. Sarah Webber says:

    This is great to know! Certainly explains why drinking in the sun gives me a headache.