Because water can absorb and transfer heat well, the human body uses it to regulate temperature. Water has a relatively high heat capacity, meaning it can absorb a lot of heat before its temperature rises. This trait allows the water in every cell of the human body to act as a buffer against sudden temperature changes. Blood, which is made largely of water, moves heat away from the extremities when it needs to conserve heat and towards the skin surface to release excess heat, and transports muscle heat away as needed. Water also helps expel excess heat from the body as water vapor from the lungs and sweat on the skin.
Water Absorbs and Moves Heat
Burning calories through physical work or exercise generates heat from muscles. Water comprises up to 75% of muscle mass. One calorie will heat one gram of water by one degree Celsius - that's ten times more heat absorption than copper. The water in the muscle cells exchanges heat with the water in blood, which carries the heat away. In the brain, the hypothalamus senses the heat, and activates the sweat glands.
Sweat Cools By Evaporation
Your skin, made wet by its sweat glands, serves as a heat exchanger. Evaporative cooling occurs because the fastest-moving (hotter) water molecules escape as vapor, leaving behind the slower-moving (cooler) molecules. The heat driving the vapor is called the heat of vaporization. This is why a hot beverage or bowl of soup goes cold; the escaping vapor robs the heat. Air flow across the skin increases this effect. That's why, when you're wet with sweat, fans or a breeze help to cool you off more quickly.
Water Can Keep the Body Temperature Below Ambient Temperature
The normal human body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, yet people survive when the ambient air temperature is higher. Air temperatures in deserts can reach higher than 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and sunlight adds to the heat absorbed by the body. In these conditions, loose, billowing clothing allowing air flow to help evaporate sweat is the norm. In heat-stressing conditions or in heavy exertion, the body might need as much as 10 liters of water per day to maintain hydration.
The Importance of Hydration
The water lost cooling the body through sweat (as well as during other body processes) must be replaced. That's why you often hear "drink plenty of fluids" as advice for anyone working or playing hard. But sweat also excretes electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, chloride and calcium. That's why sport beverages include these among their ingredients.
- UC Davis chemwiki: Heat of Vaporization
- University of California Museum of Paleontology: The Desert Biome
- UCLA Engineering: Human Heat Tolerance
- Georgia State university HyperPhysics: Specific Heat
- triathlete europe: Hydration Essentials: The Truth About Water
- Arizona State University School of Life Sciences: The Brain
- Photo Credit Marili Forastieri/Photodisc/Getty Images
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