The Science of Alcohol: Beware the 'Beer Blanket'

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The "beer blanket." The "vodka veil." The "moonshine mantle." The "shroud of spirits." If you've ever had a nip o' the "good stuff" then you have undoubtedly felt the warm, fuzzy feeling that swathes you at each inebriating indulgence. It's this feeling that makes you feel invincible to cold and allows you to attempt brazen acts of tomfoolery on even the most frigid of nights. You might have your own clever name for this phenomenon, but whatever you call it, to most, it remains an enigma.

In order to remove this shroud of mystery, we must first settle on a name for it. For the purpose of clarity, this post will use "beer blanket" as the official terminology, because it's actually in the (urban) dictionary. Now, on to the science.

First off, alcohol intake does NOT actually warm you up. There is no bodily heat-producing reaction catalyzed by a sip of blackberry brandy.

In reality, what's happening is this: Alcohol causes your blood vessels to dilate, which shifts blood flow to the surface of the skin. This warm blood circulates past millions and millions of tiny cutaneous receptors found within the epidermis. Specifically, the skin's thermoreceptors sense the blood's warmth and transmit this information via the somasensatory system to your brain, making you feel like you're cradled in a cozy cocoon.

alcohol-warms-you-324x205.jpgSorry, Mr. Saint Bernard. Your delivery doesn't actually keep me warm.

So, the "beer blanket" is literally caused by heat rushing to the borders of your body, forming a seemingly protective barrier against freezing temperatures. But beware, this "heated shell" does not make you impervious to cold; quite the contrary, in fact. When warm blood flows close to the surface of the skin, its heat is more easily sapped by cold extraneous temperatures. This vastly increases the risk of hypothermia. In fact, alcohol was partially indicted in many of the recent deaths caused by a brutal cold spell in Ukraine.

There are two lessons to be learned here. Number one, drink responsibly. And number two, beware the false warmth of the "beer blanket." A brief snowball fight under its thermal guise is one thing, but skinny-dipping in the dead of winter -- well -- that's another.

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