ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Physiological Adaptations to Cold Stress in Humans

Updated on July 21, 2016

There are several different ways that humans adapt physiologically to acute and chronic cold and stress. Maintaining internal body temperature is essential for basic metabolic processes so these adaptations are necessary for survival (Molnar, 2006:246). Physiological responses to chronic cold stress include Bergman’s rule, Allen’s rule, and the hunter’s response. Hypothermia, frostbite, and Raynaud’s disease are responses to acute cold stress.

Chronic Cold Stress

In Arctic environments, sub-zero temperatures pose a significant challenge to inhabitants. Cold climates, lack of food, and difficult terrain all require inhabitants to develop unique biological adaptations if they want to survive. These individuals are exposed to chronic cold stress which is cold stress that is moderate and experienced for longer periods of time (Frisancho, 1993:81). Therefore, of these different adaptations, one of the most important is the conversation of heat. Bergmann’s rule states that latitude is related to body mass in animals. Allen’s rule states that endotherms from colder climates have shorter limbs. Both of these rules demonstrate that squat, short body shapes retain heat better (Molnar, 2006:249). This is evident in short, squat body shape of Arctic inhabitants like the Inuit. Another physiological response to chronic cold is the hunter’s response. This has also been observed among the Inuit and other Arctic fishermen. Hunter’s response is the tendency for capillaries in the extremities to open periodically when they would otherwise be constricted. This allows blood to flow which preserves the body’s core temperature (Frisancho, 1993:84).


Acute Cold Stress

There are also several physiological responses to acute cold stress. Acute cold stress is severe cold stress that is experience over short periods of time (Frisancho, 1993:81). Raynaud’s disease occurs when the blood vessels that supply blood to the skin have limited circulation. This is caused by a narrowing of the arteries. Fingers, toes, the tip of the nose, and ears will all feel numb due to the lack of blood flow. When a normal body temperature is regained, these areas will burn and tingle until normal blood flow is reached. Another response to acute cold stress is hypothermia. Moderate hypothermia occurs at body temperatures between 82 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. This will lead to shivering that becomes more violent, apparent lack of muscle coordination, slow labored movements, and mild confusion. Blood vessels on the surface of the skin contract so the body can focus its remaining resources on the warmth of the vital organs. This causes the individual to become pale, and the lips, ears, fingers, and toes may start to become blue. As body temperature drops further, the individual will experience difficulty speaking and sluggish thinking that will eventually result in amnesia. Exposed skin will become blue and puffy, and muscle coordination will become even more difficult until the individual is no longer able to walk. At this point cellular metabolic processes shut down. Finally, frostbite is another response to acute cold stress. Before frostbite sets in, blood vessels dilate to keep the skin warm (Frisancho, 1993:87). However, this is only effective for a certain period of time. Frostbite occurs when soft tissue is damaged and skin freezes. Frozen tissues will usually blister. Untreated, the skin will become red and then purple. Blisters begin to fill with fluid within 36 hours. Over the next 10 days, the affected tissue will start to blacken.

All of these physiological responses allow humans to respond to acute and chronic cold stress. It is important to note that these different mechanisms work to conserve heat and also produce and dissipate heat. Conserving body heat will always be more economical than producing heat, but depending on the degree of cold stress experienced the body will do whatever it needs to maintain internal body temperature (Frisancho, 1993:87).

Sources Cited

Frisancho AR. 1993. Human adaptation and accommodation. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Molnar S. 2006. Human variation: races, types, and ethnic groups. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • CyclingFitness profile image

      Liam Hallam 

      6 years ago from Nottingham UK

      Great short hub on cold stress and it's effect on body's ability to maintain homeostasis.

      Would have been good to see a little more on the Bergman’s rule, Allen’s rule, and the hunter’s response in their own paragraphs with headings for ease of reading and reference

      Up and useful from me. CF

    • brenda12lynette profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Utah

      Thanks! It's interesting to know how our bodies work to keep us alive.

    • Outbound Dan profile image

      Dan Human 

      6 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      Cool Hub (yes pun intended)!


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)