Normal body temperature can vary slightly from person to person. [Credit:Xavi Sanchez]
When the German physician, Carl Wunderlich, first reported 37 degrees Celsius (or 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) as the average human body temperature in 1861, he claimed to have drawn his conclusion from more than a million armpit measurements of 25,000 patients. As unlikely as that sounds, it’s true that “normal body temperatures” are largely based on observation, and not any comprehensive theory.
In fact, normal body temperature not only varies between individuals, but also flutters within the same person with time of day and age, usually between 96.9 °F and 100 °F.
If you measure your own temperature at different parts of the body, say in your mouth and under your arms, you’ll notice that the temperatures are different. The general rule is that the thinner a body part is, the less contact it has with the outside environment, and therefore the higher temperature you’ll observe.
As with all other mammals, humans maintain a relatively constant temperature by breaking down carbohydrates, proteins and fats for energy, much like a power plant that burns coal for energy. The process occurs inside our cells, where oxygen, water and nutrients chemically react to produce carbon dioxide, energy and heat. That heat is then absorbed by blood and distributed throughout the body via a network of veins, arteries and capillaries.
The elasticity of those capillaries plays a central role in our ability to maintain constant body temperatures. When there’s too much heat in the body, our capillaries automatically expand and increase the blood flow to the skin, allowing the excess heat to transfer to the air. This is why people become flushed after working out. Conversely, when we don’t have enough energy to balance out the heat loss, capillaries narrow to slow down the blood flow and therefore minimize energy escape.
However, not all fluctuations of our body temperature fall under the control of blood vessels. For example, you are likely to have a higher temperature right after a 100-meter sprint than when you are fast asleep. Intense physical activities temporarily boost your metabolic rate as your body burns more fuels to balance your energy consumption.
Body temperatures wax and wane with hormone levels, too. That’s why a woman’s basal body temperature, or her temperature on waking after a normal night’s sleep, is often used as an indicator of ovulation. Characterized by the surge of luteinizing hormone, a kind of hormone needed for proper reproductive function, ovulation usually increases basal body temperature by 0.4 °F to 1 °F.
Women also tend to have higher rectal body temperatures, or temperatures taken directly inside the body cavity, than men, according to a 2001 study by a group of Dutch scientists. They largely attributed the difference to women’s reproductive cycle, which may in turn explain why men and women have slightly different ways to maintain their body temperatures. Other possible explanations include different abilities to contract blood vessels and differences in resting metabolic rates.
Meanwhile, controlling body temperatures has recently emerged as a potential treatment for stroke. Clot-causing cells, the main culprit for blocking blood vessels and inducing stroke, were found to be less active at lower temperatures. The commonly accepted target temperature is now set at 91.4 °F, or 33 °C, but clinical trials are still underway in the search for optimal conditions for treatment.
While those treatments require a change in body temperature, it is generally true that a healthy person will have a fairly constant body temperature. In fact, it’s so important that your body spends 90 percent of its metabolic energy to make very sure that your temperature is as close to 98.6 °F as possible. So, even though you may feel hot or cold, or worry that your body temperature isn’t 98.6 °F all the time, rest assured, your body is working very hard to maintain that temperature.