Does Cold Weather Strengthen Your Immune System?
Each year when winter arrives, you may wonder how you can best protect yourself from that months-long chill in the air because of the widespread notion that cold weather makes us sick. But is this notion actually correct?
There is a plethora of information surrounding cold weather and health, and the majority is focused on how the immune system is much weaker in winter (and how to boost it so flu season doesn’t get you). However, while cold weather does present some risks when it comes to your health, it actually also has a variety of different health benefits.
So how does the cold affect immunity, exactly? Does cold weather strengthen your immune system or weaken it? Let’s find out.
What are the effects of cold weather on the human body?
The very first thing to note when considering how cold weather affects the human body is that everybody is different. Each person, depending on their height, weight, and what type of climate they grew up in, will feel and tolerate cold temperatures in different ways. For example, a person who is six feet tall and lives close to the equator all their life will lose body heat faster than someone who is five feet tall living in the Arctic.
That being said, humans are highly adaptable species and their bodies can adjust rather quickly to changing conditions. So, although those factors do play a role in certain cold-related health effects, there are general benefits and downsides that everyone can experience as the weather grows colder.
What are the negative effects of cold weather?
Being out in the cold for extended periods of time can lead to serious health issues such as frostbite or hypothermia. Frostbite is damage that occurs to exposed skin, while hypothermia occurs when the internal temperature of the body drops below 95℉ and is the result of the body losing far more heat than it can generate. Hypothermia can be mild, but it can also be deadly. These two examples of how cold can affect health are on the extreme end of the spectrum.
In terms of general health and a regular level of exposure, cold weather has been shown to cause:
- An increased risk of heart attack
- Skin conditions such as eczema to flare up
- Increased risk of cold or flu infections
- Increased asthma symptoms, such as difficulty breathing
- A decrease in cognitive function
While these effects tend to apply to a select group of people, such as those with existing heart disease, eczema, or asthma, it is safe to say that cold weather does pose some health risks.
What are the benefits of cold weather?
On the opposite side, there are also benefits to being out in the cold. Cryotherapy, for example, is a type of physical therapy that involves exposure to extremely low temperatures. Research has shown that cryotherapy can help to treat various symptoms such as pain and inflammation.
Exposure to cold temperatures in relation to exercise especially has been shown to reduce fatigue, lessen recovery time, improve post-exercise blood flow, and increase oxygen delivery throughout the body. It can also help to burn more calories, because the body has to work harder to keep you warm if you exercise in the cold.
Other studies done on worms have found that being exposed to cold weather temperatures may actually increase lifespan; however, since there is limited research done on humans in this department, more insight is needed to see if the same effects occur in us.
Does being cold improve your immune system?
The research surrounding cold and the immune system is rather mixed, and it seems that scientists can’t agree on whether or not exposure to cold helps or hinders the immune response. One study looked at cold weather as a driver for a weakened immune system and found that lowering the temperature by only four degrees could lead to a weaker response from the innate immune system when up against a rhinovirus.
When looking at different types of cold exposure, the end result slightly differs. For example, exposure to extremely cold water may actually benefit the immune system. One particular Dutch study looked at people exposed to cold water while practicing meditation. During their time in the study, they were also exposed to a bacterial infection. The results found that the body was able to produce more immune cells to fight off the infection.
Another study looked at how daily cold water exposure helped immunity and found that it was directly related to a boosted defense against tumors.
Is it healthier to live in a cold climate?
According to an article published by the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, living in warm weather is better for your overall health and wellbeing. The article assumes this to be true based on the fact that places with colder climates tend to have a lower general mortality rate. That being said, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that winter climates benefit the health in certain ways relative to chronic diseases that may cause early mortality.
Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer as yet when it comes to the battle between warm and cold weather and which is better for immunity. But it would appear that cold weather, with its various benefits and risks, is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of overall health and wellbeing.