January 28th, 2009
10:33 AM ET

She’s hot; he’s cold - battling body temperatures

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

In February, my husband and I will celebrate our 27th wedding anniversary.  Many marriage experts will tell you, if a couple have survived that long, they’ve pretty much worked out the kinks in their relationship.  And for the most part, that’s true when it comes to my hubby and me; except for one thing.  We fight constantly over the temperature on our car’s thermostat.

I have always been one of those people who feel warm all the time. I can be out in 20-degree weather in Syracuse and I’m sweating.  My husband, on the other hand, is forever cold.  His feet, ears, hands, (everything but his heart) are always freezing.  A 90-degree day in Miami is comfy for him.  So whether we use the heater or the air conditioner in the car is always an issue. 

Why the difference?   It seems that each one of us has our own body temperature, regulated by the human thermostat, known as the hypothalamus.  This section of the brain controls our body temps.  The average temperature of the human body is 98.6 degrees. But according to doctors, many of us have body temperatures that can vary, plus or minus, within a few degrees of that number.  So what is a “normal” temperature for some is not always “normal” for others. And because we are mammals and not reptiles, our bodies adapt to cold and hot by either shivering or sweating, depending on our body temperature.

There are different factors that can affect whether our inner thermostats go up or down. Medication can cause our temps to change.  Certain blood-thinning meds, pills for blood pressure and thyroid medication can all make our body temperatures dip.  And illnesses including diabetes and hypothyroidism can cause us to become chilly.

Muscle mass is another factor.  A lot of people think fat can insulate the body, and for the most part it helps.  But lean muscle mass requires more energy to run and so increases the metabolic rate to process calories into usable fuel for muscle.  That keeps us toasty.  And water helps. Health experts say drinking water can regulate body temperatures and keep them level.

Our age also makes a difference. By the time we reach our 50s, the difference in body temperatures between men and women becomes apparent.  Ladies begin to feel the effects of menopause, and “hot flashes” can make them so uncomfortable that many want to participate in their local “Polar Bear” plunge sans bathing suit!  Men can begin to face circulation problems earlier than women. Bad circulation can keep blood from flowing to hands and feet, producing chilly extremities, which could drive even the most macho of men to wear mittens.

So the next time someone asks you why you’re driving around with the air conditioner on in the middle of January…or wearing a parka in May, say, “It’s not me, it’s my hypothalamus!!!”  At least that’s what I keep telling my husband. 

Are you always cold or warm?  What do you do to make yourself more comfortable?  We’d love to hear about it.

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.