Natural Thermoregulation: How Does It Work?

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

The body is capable of so many amazing things, and natural thermoregulation is one of them! If you are feeling too warm or cold, you can utilize various methods to help your body get back into homeostasis — a combination of internal, physical, and chemical conditions your body maintains to keep living.

There are also many explanations for why you may experience low body temperature but feel hot, and vice versa.

How do the skin and other organs help regulate body temperature?

Because there are so many external factors that can try to throw your body temperature off, your body must be able to counter them and maintain homeostasis. The skin and hypothalamus ensure your temperature does not get either dangerously high or dangerously low.

Skin

How does the skin help regulate body temperature? Because the skin is indeed the largest organ of the body, it plays a significant role. It does this with its extensive blood supply, creating a barrier to protect you.

When the vessels dilate, heat loss occurs, and when they constrict, the body retains heat and prevents any loss of it. Both of these actions happen as a result of various hot and cold conditions. When the vessels react adequately, your inner body temperature remains constant. The goal is always to maintain homeostasis.

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There are a few different ways the skin protects you from environmental conditions:

Conduction

Conduction occurs any time your skin touches something that is at a different temperature. If you pick up a piece of ice, the heat from your hand will transfer to the ice cube. If you are holding a hot bowl of soup, the heat from the bowl will transfer to your hands. The purpose of conduction is to even out the temperatures between the two surfaces touching.

Convection

Whenever the skin comes into contact with wind or water, this can trigger a transfer of heat. If you have a fan blowing in your face, for example, your face starts to cool down due to the circulating air. The closer the fan is to you, the faster it turns and the longer it blows in your face, the more heat you will lose.

Perspiration

Whether you are in the gym or are taking a walk on a hot day, you may perspire. For the average person, the body will start to sweat at 98.6 F (37 C). Sweating is more likely to occur in dry heat, as humidity can limit the body’s ability to sweat because of the moisture on the skin. When sweat does form on the skin, it takes your body heat with it.

Radiation

The body can transfer heat by electromagnetic waves through space in a process called radiation. This happens when the size of your blood vessels starts to expand, allowing for more significant amounts of blood to flow against the skin’s surface.

Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus is the other part of the body that plays a massive role in regulating your body temperature. This part of your brain is responsible for telling the body when it needs to adjust its core temperature and exactly how to do so.

By controlling the release of specific hormones and chemicals, the hypothalamus sends messages to blood vessels. This allows the body to continuously make adjustments to ensure it stays within one or two degrees of 98.6 F (37 C).

If you get an infection or injury, the hypothalamus is responsible for heating your body up. This increased body temperature is why you may experience a fever!

What do hot and cold body temperature swings mean?

Whether performing an activity or resting, you may randomly start feeling hot or cold. There are various reasons you could be experiencing the body temperature swing, and it is crucial to identify the cause to make sure that it’s not serious.

Wool blankets as a way to increase body temperature

Why you may suddenly feel hot:

It could be what you are eating or drinking

Certain drinks, such as alcohol and caffeinated beverages, can activate bodily functions that increase your heart rate and cause you to feel hot and sweaty.

When you are drinking alcohol, your liver is responsible for breaking it down, as it is identified as a poison in the body. The metabolization in the liver generates heat. Also, as alcohol is perceived by your body as a foreign substance, your body prioritizes digesting the alcohol over your current or recent food.

Spicy foods may also be capable of raising your temperature.

This may seem like common sense, as many people’s faces start to flush, and their noses run when eating something particularly spicy. Capsaicin is a chemical in hot peppers that can raise your temperature and cause you to start sweating.

Your medications could have heat-inducing side effects

Certain medications and supplements will naturally cause your body heat to rise, whether prescription or over-the-counter. Consider taking a look at the side effects of what you regularly take if you ever experience sweating and feelings of excessive heat.

Here are a few common medications that can cause these symptoms:

  • Antibiotics
  • Antidepressants
  • Blood pressure and heart drugs
  • Hormonal medications
  • Pain relievers
  • Zinc supplements

Anxiety and stress can be short-term causes

Any time you are in an emotionally stressful situation, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in. It is responsible for telling your brain and body how to react to what is going on, as well as how you physically respond.

If you are experiencing a certain level of stress or anxiety, you may feel your body temperature rise, with symptoms like sweating, clammy palms, and increased heart rate.

You could have a thyroid condition!

If you happen to have hyperthyroidism, your thyroid will be doing a little more work than necessary. The thyroid can put your metabolism into overdrive, resulting in you experiencing a lot of sweating and feeling abnormally hot.

If you think this may be the case, it is essential you see a physician, as it could be affecting you in other ways.

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Why you may suddenly feel cold:

Anemia is a common cause

Anemia is a condition that makes you always feel abnormally cold, especially in your hands and feet, due to a lack of healthy red blood cells. As a result, your body cannot transfer the right amount of oxygen to all of the body’s tissues due to the inadequate supply.

This condition tends to be more common in older people, but it generally develops in people who do not consume enough iron and vitamin B12 daily.

Shortness of breath, pale skin, fatigue, headaches, and irregular heartbeat are a few other known symptoms of anemia.

You may be lacking body fat

The average person tends to try many different diets and forms of exercise in their life for various reasons. If you are on a mission to lose weight, odds are you are regularly working out. This causes your body to constantly burn calories, especially if you are increasing your muscle mass simultaneously.

The combined caloric deficit from exercise and dieting results in a decreased body fat percentage.

While this may be your goal, you will not have as much insulation on your body as you are used to. Therefore, you may feel colder than usual.

You may (again) have a thyroid condition

While hyperthyroidism can cause your body to overheat, hypothyroidism can make you feel colder. This happens because the thyroid is not able to produce enough hormones, resulting in a lack of heat regulation in the body.

How to raise your body temperature

Whether you have a condition such as anemia, are at risk of hypothermia, or are simply feeling chilly, it is crucial to know how to increase your body temperature!

Bundle up!

If you are feeling cold, one of the simplest things you can do to warm up is bundle up! Choose thicker, insulated clothing that will trap your body heat against your skin, preventing it from escaping.

Your body heat escapes primarily from your head, hands, and feet. Wear wool socks, gloves, and a hat to prevent this from happening.

Try a breathing method

Have you heard of the Wim Hof method? Famous for allowing Wim Hof to swim for long periods under ice and run barefoot through the snow, this form of breathing has been proven to very effectively heat your body in extreme conditions. Don’t try to swim under the ice, though.

To try this breathing method, first get into a comfortable position, whether it be seated or lying down on your back. You need to be able to use your lungs to the fullest capacity, so make sure you are not hunched over.

Before you try it, please note that hyperventilation may cause dizziness and even fainting. Pay particular attention to how you feel if you have anemia or respiratory problems.

Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Repeat this 30 to 40 times in quick bursts. After your final exhale try not to breathe in as long as you can, then inhale fully and hold your breath for 10–15 seconds. After that, breathe out and take some time to recover.

You may repeat the process as many times as you like or until you feel adequately warmed up. It is common to experience light-headedness and tingling in your feet and hands, but those effects are nothing to be concerned about.

Consume hot foods and beverages

We always think about hot chocolate and warm soup when we picture the wintertime. This is a delicious way to warm yourself up! Hot tea and coffee are a couple of other beverages to try.

As for food, consuming high amounts of iron, even daily, is an excellent way to try and prevent anemia. Eating foods with plenty of proteins and fats can also warm you up, as those two macronutrients take longer for the body to digest.

How to decrease your body temperature

It is especially important to know how to decrease your body temperature in case of an emergency. For example, many people experience heat stroke and heat exhaustion during the summer due to outdoor exercise. Being preventative and knowledgeable can save you or someone else from needing to go to the hospital!

Iced summer drinks as a metaphor for having low body temperature but feeling hot

Wear the right clothing!

Before stepping outside, make sure you are wearing light and breathable clothing. This helps prevent the heat from being trapped against your skin, which would steadily increase your body temperature. Sweat-wicking clothing is also a great idea, as it keeps moisture from the skin.

Put yourself in a cool environment

This one may sound obvious, but if you are sweating and feeling overheated, finding a room with air-conditioning will deliver the needed air circulation to your skin. If you cannot get indoors, try and find some shade so you can get a break from the sun!

Take a cold shower or bath

Once you step into an ice bath or cold shower, you should instantly feel cooler. This is because your body temperature will start to drop as the heat from your skin transfers to the water through convection.

Final thoughts

The skin and the hypothalamus are responsible for keeping your body at a constant and safe temperature. Many people may experience a rapidly fluctuating body temperature, and you must know how to raise or lower your core body temperature.

Methods such as eating the right foods and wearing specific clothing are a few of the less complicated measures you can take. Stay safe and consult your physician if you feel you may have anemia or a thyroid issue.

August 26, 2022