Why your girlfriend has cold feet

This post is also available in Dutch.

Cold, huh? The winter wouldn’t be so bad, if it wasn’t so terribly cold. Time to cuddle. But why do we feel so cold? And why are women usually colder than men?

Image by Annelies (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

In order to feel temperature, something in our bodies needs to signal whether it’s warm or cold. Yet things aren’t as simple as that! The body uses cells that are equipped with special receptors. These are receptors that can detect changes in the environment, like when you’re cold.

So this receptor has two settings: ‘on’ and ‘off’. If the temperature in the environment changes, then the form of these receptors change slightly in their shape, going from ‘on’ to ‘off’ (or the reverse). The cold receptor acts like a small channel, so that positive ions can travel through it. This is how our cells receive the signal: it’s cold!

ion-channel-crash-course
Image via Crash Course

Different ways to feel the cold
Many of these receptors are located on special neurons that lie just beneath the surface of our skin. Our skin is in constant contact with warm and cold temperatures, and this exposure results in small changes in our warm and cold receptors— warning us to put on those gloves, just in the nick of time!

ligand-and-mechanically-gated-ion-channels
Image via Crash Course

However, it’s definitely not the case that all receptors in our bodies work in this manner. Most of our receptors change shape if they’re in contact with molecules or proteins for which they’re especially sensitive to. Interestingly, our co-receptor can also do this, namely when it is in contact with menthol. The effect that occurs is the same; the channel opens and the ions flow inside. In light of this, we cannot really ‘feel’ the difference when something is minty or simply cold.

How we stay warm
Through the use of these receptors, our bodies are able to respond to the cold: ensuring us an extra thick winter coat (or a warm sweater should do), otherwise turning up your internal thermostat should also do the trick. If that’s still not enough, then our bodies will gather warmth by allowing less blood to be sent to our skin and distant limbs. These areas are of lesser importance than other more sensitive organs in our abdomen. This occurs more strongly for women, one of the most important organs is located in their abdomen, the uterus of course! In this case, blood from the arms and legs is picked up and redirected more quickly.

So as a man or as a partner, you may have fallen victim to those cold feet rubbing up against yours, in effort to steal some warmth! So perhaps, it isn’t so great to feel cold as nature intended after all…

Looking for more?
The gifs in this article are from a nice short movie by Crash Course about the nervous system. Watch it here!

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