Science Questions

How do we keep warm?

Sat, 7th May 2011

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Evgeny, Russia asked:

How do we keep warm?


We put this question to Professor Roger Thomas, from the University of Cambridge:

Roger -   Im Roger Thomas, a Professor of Physiology in the University of Cambridge and I do lecture to medical students on thermoregulation.   What we should start with is saying that were all producing heat all the time by the chemical processes in our bodies.  For example, the heart, pumping blood around the body, uses energy derived from glucose, and the mechanical energy from glucose is produced with waste heat.  So all the time the heart is working, its producing excess heat.  All the other chemical processes going on in the body, digesting food, thinking and so on, the amount varies, so after a heavy meal you produce a lot more heat as you digest it than normally.

An image of two people in mid-infrared (I expect the question you really want to know about is producing heat when you need more than normal.  There are two mechanisms there.  One will be very familiar to most of you shivering.  This involves involuntary contractions of large muscles which generates heat wastefully, as it were, but in this case you need the heat to keep warm.  The other mechanism is known as non-shivering thermogenesis, or heat produced by mechanisms other than shivering.  This primarily involved brown fat.  These are cells in patches of tissue all over the body, particularly near the heart, in the shoulder blades and so on, which are very important in newborn babies, who have a lot of trouble regulating their body temperature.  In adults its also found, although this has been controversial, and this works by simply burning glucose to produce heat rather than any other form of energy.  Its a 100% heat production process, and this tissue is located near blood vessels, so it warms up the blood and warms the whole body.

Diana -   Brown fat is great for burning glucose and producing heat.  It has been hypothesised that people who live in houses without central heating tend to have higher proportions of brown fat.

But then, central heating is another form of thermo regulation along with clothes and blankets.

And a paper published in Obesity Reviews in January actually showed evidence that living in warmer houses is contributing to obesity and this could be related to reduced proportions of brown fat against white fat.


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There are so many factors to this, from making heat in the first place through to not losing it through exposed body parts. Metabolic processes, including muscle movements, are fairly low-efficiency; muscles turn only about 20% of the energy they consume into useful mechanical work. This is a major source of heat in the body. Blood flowing through the muscles picks up this heat and redistributes it around the body.
chris, Fri, 6th May 2011

20% efficiency is not too shabby really. You don't get too much more than that out of a typical internal combustion engine. Geezer, Fri, 6th May 2011

Keeping mammals warm is the job of some processes.
The most basic one I'm aware of is oxidation of carbohydrates, which occurs in the mitochondria where oxygen combines with carbon to form CO2 and heat, similar to burning coal without the flame.
The next source of heat comes from muscular action. When you're cold, simply do some heavy lifting and you'll warm up rather quickly.
Slowing the loss of heat through fat tissue, clothing, shelter, fire, and companions is good.
Other sources of heat: consuming hot drinks and lighting a fire.
Hope this helps. diverjohn, Sat, 7th May 2011

I will be very interested in this podcast as there is this man who was able to run a half marathon barefoot with just shorts and a woolly hat in Lapland. 

He was tested by a Dr by lowering him into cold water and demonstrated that he was able to increase his body core temperature just by thinking about it.  He surpassed the ability of most humans by remaining in this cold water way past what would normally be fatal for most of us.

He is known as the Iceman... Aaron_Thomas, Sat, 7th May 2011

I'm skeptical Airthumbs, do you have any sources? Madidus_Scientia, Sat, 7th May 2011

So was I.

Isn't the worldwideweb wonderful?  Not sure about his conscious control - but there's quite a long thread a few sub-fora down about conscious control of other homoeostatic methods (goosebumps) and I knew someone who could raise and lower his heartbeat whilst lying down without moving and surrounded by perplexed medical students.  imatfaal, Sun, 8th May 2011

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