Winter is a painful season for Satoko Kojima (not her real name), a Tokyo office worker who says she cannot tolerate cold temperatures.
In the morning when waiting on the platform for her train, her toes go numb. At work, she is not comfortable without a blanket on her lap, even though the office’s temperature hovers around 30 degrees. Compounding the problem are neck and jaw aches because Kojima unconsciously stiffens her body and clenches her teeth whenever she is cold.
“I really envy people who have no problem with cold weather,” she says with a sigh.
Kojima’s problem is not unique, however. While it is not known for sure how many people suffer similar ailments, many doctors believe that at least one-third of Japanese women are afflicted with chronic coldness of the whole body or certain parts of the body, especially hands and feet. Sufferers say that once their bodies lose heat, it is hard to warm themselves up and bring their body temperature back to a comfortable level.
This condition is popularly known as hiesho, which literally means, “oversensitivity to the cold.”
Hiesho is not recognized as an illness in conventional medicine, but is considered a trigger for various ailments in Oriental medicine.
“Physical coldness should not be taken lightly,” says Kako Watanabe, a doctor at Kitasato Institute’s Oriental Medicine Research Center, which has given special courses on hiesho since 1997.
Chronic cold sensitivity can cause headaches, lower back pain, diarrhea, allergic rhinitis, frequent urination, cystitis and lethargy, Watanabe says. It has also been linked with more serious illnesses such as asthma and rheumatism.
The causes, Watanabe says, arise from a deficiency in the body’s ability to generate heat or poor blood circulation caused by conditions such as anemia, low blood pressure and autonomic imbalance. Sometimes serious problems are discovered in the heart, the thyroid gland and other organs, but she admits that it is often difficult to detect any obvious cause.
Hiesho is typically considered to be disease that afflicts women. In fact, more than 90 percent of the center’s hiesho sufferers are female, ranging in age from their teens to their 60s.
It is widely believed that the reproductive cycle has a strong influence on the condition, because the cycle often causes a hormonal imbalance and subsequent loss of body temperature control. However, Watanabe says there is no data to prove a definite correlation.
One explanation for why women are more likely to be afflicted with hiesho than men, Watanabe says, is that women on average have about 10 percent less muscle mass.
Muscles help accelerate metabolism and generate heat. “In fact, most of our patients with this problem are thin. Building muscle mass through regular exercise is one of the ways to prevent hiesho,” she says.
Not all hiesho sufferers are women, of course.
Takaaki Murata, director of Minami Tama Hospital in Hachioji, western Tokyo, says he took a personal interest in hiesho because he himself suffers from it.
A specialist in gynecology, Murata is well known for his hiesho treatments (using both Western and Oriental medicine), and sees as many as 600 to 700 sufferers at the hospital each month.
At Keio Hospital, where he offers Chinese medical treatments once a week, 7 to 8 percent of all hiesho patients are men, and they have slim physiques, he says.
However, Murata emphasizes that regardless of gender, coldness causes tremendous stress and life-threatening damage to all human beings. We must expend enormous amounts of energy to regenerate lost heat; failure to do so can lead to deterioration of the internal organs.
To ease the symptoms, Murata advises sufferers to keep the home and office warm, but never dramatically different from the outside temperature, because sudden changes in temperature several times a day are even more stressful to the body.
He also recommends that women wear warm scarves and pants rather than skirts.
In accordance with the principles of Oriental medicine, Watanabe recommends eating meals in sync with the seasons: winter vegetables and spices to keep you warm, and summer vegetables and fruits to cool you down.
For this time of year, she suggests daikon (radish), gobo (burdock) and renkon (lotus roots).
Most people can easily lose their sense of the four seasons, Watanabe says. “We work in air-conditioned offices throughout the year, and can eat tomatoes and cucumbers in winter. Living against natural cycles can affect the body negatively.”
She warns that hiesho could be a sign of serious problems such as heart disease, collagen disease and hyperthyroidism. “Do not hesitate to visit a hospital if you are seriously troubled by the cold.”