Do hot drinks really warm you up on cold days? Sort of

Science tells us how hot drinks work in bodies, but perception also plays a role

As cold air settles across the country and winter approaches, many people reach for hot drinks to keep the chill at bay.

While there is science that demonstrates how these warm beverages affect the body, there is also research that shows our perceptions of these drinks play a part in how they make us feel.

Sharon Smalling, a clinical dietitian specialist at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, said our bodies need to maintain a temperature of 98.6 degrees to work effectively. She said when our brain senses a temperature drop, it signals the body to react in two different ways.

"When you shiver, you're creating energy and heat," Smalling said. "So that's to help warm the insides, keep your internal organs warm."

Smalling said the other way is by pushing warm blood to the extremities to stave off the cold.

That may be when we want to turn to a piping hot cup of coffee or hot chocolate to help that process along.

Hot drinks and you

Dr. Michael J. White, of HCA Healthcare Houston and Envision Physician Services, said your body perceives the heat from those drinks in two ways.

"First of all, you have the effects of the heat on like your hands when you're holding the coffee cup, and your body feels that heat," White said. "You might feel the heat of the steam coming off the coffee and your body perceives that heat. As that warm fluid hits your esophagus and your stomach, your body really recognizes the heat."

White said that warm fluid in your stomach can raise your body temperature a bit, but not by much.

"You've got to think that most of your body is water," White said. "You're putting a little bit of a warm fluid into it. So, it will increase your body temperature temporarily for a little bit of time."

Smalling said that temperature change is about 2.5 degrees and will only last for about 20 minutes. After that, your temperature returns to whatever it was before you drank your hot beverage.

It’s also about perception

With that fleeting temperature change, both White and Smalling agree that a big reason we turn to hot drinks when it’s cold out is perception.

A study published in 2008 showed that we generally associate warm feelings with warm drinks.

"People stated that the person who was holding a warm beverage actually seemed to have a warmer personality," Smalling said.

Aim for these drinks

Smalling said that if you really want to use a drink to stay warm, you should focus on drinks that have some healthy fats in them and very little caffeine.

"The metabolism of fat will actually create the energy and burning of calories creates heat and energy," Smalling said. "So having not just a decaf coffee but having maybe a decaf latte or having a hot chocolate that wouldn't have as much caffeine in it."

Smalling said she has also seen research that showed Mongols in the time of Genghis Kahn drank warm yak milk to stay warm.

"So, you can just imagine the yak milk was very high, in fat, and so that is, you know, it's that metabolic rate being increased," Smalling said.

White said you should also skip alcoholic beverages if you’re aiming to warm up from a drink.

"It makes your body not be able to thermal regulate, and also your perception of being cold really, really changes," White said. "You don't feel cold, but you're not doing anything really to warm yourself up, so you create a worse problem."

More effective ways to warm

Both White and Smalling agree that there are much better ways than drinks to keep yourself warm when it’s cold outside.

First, dress in layers. This creates an insulating blanket of warm air along your skin. 

Second, cover your head, your hands and your feet. That is where you lose most of your heat.

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