It wasn't some perverse streak in you, after all, making you so edgy and depressed during that spell of balmy weather we had the other week, actually making you feel like cheering when the weather turned cold again. No, it wasn't you. It was just your trusty old body clock setting your physiology up for cold weather. It was a kind of climate-lag -- and we were all having it.
The body was readying for the expected chill, stepping up the metabolism to generate more heat (and appetite), and sharpening the body's ability to constrict blood vessels near the surface, to minimize heat loss.Therefore, moderate as it was, that little warm spell seemed almost tropical to our winterizing systems.
Never mind. It's quite cold enough now for any cranky body clock.No doubt, in no time at all we'll be yearning nostalgically for some balm, seasonal or no.
So from the kindly environmental physiologist who brought you last summer's hot-weather tips, here is some wintry wisdom to help you make it through to spring. And from both national and area poison-control centers, some warnings about popular holiday decorations that may be nice to look at but, literally, are not fir (food) for man nor beast (read, especially, children and pets).
Dr. Richard A. Kenney of the Geore Washington University Medical Center suggests that comfort is probably your best guide for weathering the new thermostatic lows we'll be coping with this fuel-poor winter. For the most part, he believes, 65 degrees is "physiologically valid," and a light sweater in addition to normal dress ought to be sufficient for most of us indoors, even more than sufficient if we're not sitting all the time.
Outdoors, of course, is something else. We've been hearing about the virtues of "layering" clothing for some winters now, and Dr. Kenney thinks it is, of course, "really the sensible way to behave." But, he suggests, that too many of what he calls "clothing units," can be counterproductive. If you're too overdressed "you can't move." He also notes that what will keep you warm while you're walking briskly will not be nearly enough if you're just standing on a corner waiting for a bus.
Does it matter? Besides the question of just plain comfort, Dr. Kenney says, "You can lose heat from the body very, very quickly, and that produces all kinds of strains on the body. The body can accommodate cold, but it does so at the expense of other systems."
What is more, Dr. Kenney says (a little sadly, because "this is where I alienate all my friends"), despite "the nice warm feeling it gives you, drinking alcohol is the worst possible thing you can do.
"It dilates the blood vessels in the skin and therefore you're bringing a lot of heat to the body surface where it can be lost. It's totally counter-productive.
"And just as bad," he adds, "is when a person's been out in the cold and the inclination is to go in and get a nice drink like a hot toddy.
"That seems to work for the moment, but now blood is coming from the center of the body -- where all the mechanisms were tending to keep it warm -- rushing out into this cold skin and bringing coolth to the center of the body.
"That, if the person is cold enough, can be a very real danger," he warns. "You can interfere with the normal conducting system of the heart if it is suddenly faced with a return of a lot of cold blood."
Cold hands, warm heart? Maybe, but the hands along with the head and the feet, are the best places for body heat to escape. Gloves are fine, says Kenny, but gloves which are too thick merely increase the surface from which heat can escape. Mittens are better whenever possible; hats are derigueur even if you have plenty of hair, and cold feet are definitely outre.
Extremities will be painful when you're on the way to frostbite, says Dr. Kenney, but when you really have to watch out is when the pain stops, because that means everything's too cold to work right.
Children, says Dr. Kenney, because they are more nearly round than adults, have fewer surfaces from which heat is lost. They also generate more heat, so they really do not have to be wrapped up into what Kenny sees as "passive balls."
On the other hand, old people are in danger of a real threat from accidental hypothermia, the sometimes fatal malfunctioning of the temperature-control system which causes the body temperature to plummet.
According to a recent study in the United Kingdom, done by the British College of Physicians, 4 percent of all hospitalized persons over 65 were found to be suffering from hypothermia. An additional survey of deaths of older people found that in as many as 20,000 deaths hypothermia might have played a part, although it was indicated conclusively in only 100.
Nevertheless, the physicians recommended that old people should never be in a room where the temperature is below 65 degrees fahrenhiet. Hypothermia is insidious, because as the temperature drops perilously low, the person suffers a malfunction of perceptions which mislead him or her into a false sense of euphoria. This condition can be fatal, often rapidly, if it goes untreated.
The situation is worsened, says Dr. Kenney, when the older person's diet is inadequate, or if it doesn't include enough warm foods. Here too, he warns, alcohol can spell diaster.
Finally, the annual warning about shoveling snow. It isn't just the extra exercise, Kenney notes: "It is just about the hardest work there is, but doning it in a situation where cold air is blowing on the face has quite a profound effect on the circulation . . . when you blow cold air on the face, you can produce an enormous change in the heart rate . . . you can do the same thing by making the face wet."
And here are a few holiday warnings from the poison-control people: Virtually all Christmas greens, including holly, ivy, mistletoe and poinsettia are poisonous to people and animals. Because some are also irritants, no medicine, including syrup of ipacec, should be adminstered until professional advice is obtained. Remember, too, that angel's hair is spun glass and can cut like glass, that the alcohol in perfumes, after-shaves and colognes, as well as whiskies, is potentially dangerous, especially to children. Also watch out for the tiny batteries from hearing aids and cameras.
Finally, stay cool, but keep warm. And, as Dr. Kenney is fond of saying, "Many are cold, but few are frozen