Human whole body cold adaptation

Hein A.M. Daanen*, Wouter D. Van Marken Lichtenbelt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalReview articleAcademicpeer-review


Reviews on whole body human cold adaptation generally do not distinguish between population studies and dedicated acclimation studies, leading to confusing results. Population studies show that indigenous black Africans have reduced shivering thermogenesis in the cold and poor cold induced vasodilation in fingers and toes compared to Caucasians and Inuit. About 40,000 y after humans left Africa, natives in cold terrestrial areas seems to have developed not only behavioral adaptations, but also physiological adaptations to cold. Dedicated studies show that repeated whole body exposure of individual volunteers, mainly Caucasians, to severe cold results in reduced cold sensation but no major physiological changes. Repeated cold water immersion seems to slightly reduce metabolic heat production, while repeated exposure to milder cold conditions shows some increase in metabolic heat production, in particular non-shivering thermogenesis. In conclusion, human cold adaptation in the form of increased metabolism and insulation seems to have occurred during recent evolution in populations, but cannot be developed during a lifetime in cold conditions as encountered in temperate and arctic regions. Therefore, we mainly depend on our behavioral skills to live in and survive the cold.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)104-118
Number of pages15
Issue number1
Early online date22 Feb 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • acclimation
  • adaptation
  • brown fat
  • cold
  • cold induced vasodilation; cold water immersion; human
  • non-shivering thermogenesis
  • shivering


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