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Feel the Freeze: Why Our Hands and Feet Get Cold

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My dad’s number one complaint during cold weather isn’t his icy car windshield or his expensive heating bills—it’s my mom’s feet. They’re like icicles come wintertime, and she loves putting them on unsuspecting exposed skin. Eventually she stopped bestowing her “gift” on me, though, because I was able to retaliate with my own chilly hands and feet. Because cold extremities seem to run in my family, I assumed they were some kind of hereditary curse. But freezing feet and hands are actually the body’s way of protecting itself. What we really need to consider is what’s causing that need for protection. 

First Line of Defense
When temperatures drop, it’s not uncommon for people to experience cold hands, feet, ears, and noses. That’s because keeping our vital organs warm is our bodies’ main goal when it’s cold outside. As chilly weather lowers our body temperature, our brains make the blood vessels in our extremities constrict, lessening the amount of blood flowing through these regions and increasing blood and heat flow to more essential areas. The process protects what’s most important for our survival, but it also results in frigid fingers and toes. 

Factors That Increase the Frost
While getting icy extremities is a natural bodily response, it happens to some people more often and more extremely, and for a variety of reasons. It could be a case of poor circulation or a side effect of prescription drugs (painkillers and blood pressure medication are potential culprits), but other factors can come into play as well. Women and people who live in colder parts of the world are more likely to experience this condition. Cigarette smoke—even the secondhand kind—and caffeine also constrict blood vessels. However, cold extremities might indicate a more serious issue. 

Stress
It might seem surprising that anxiety makes us colder, but it’s all a part of our bodies’ adaptive fight-or-flight response. When we feel we’re under attack (either physically or emotionally), our bodies produce adrenaline to prep us for battle. They also draw blood away from the surface of the skin, in anticipation of wounds, and send it to the heart, lungs, and liver. This process makes us ready for self-defense, albeit with chilly ears or hands. 

Raynaud’s Disease
For people with this condition, the slightest amount of stress or a little drop in temperature will make their fingers and toes turn white or slightly bluish. It’s quite painful while it lasts and can range in severity, depending on the person. When the body temperature returns to normal, blood rushes to the extremities and they become noticeably flushed. 

Doctors aren’t sure why some people get this disease, at least the primary (and the most common) kind. There’s also secondary Raynaud’s disease, which is brought about by another disease, like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, and tends to show up later in life. Those with Raynaud’s are highly sensitive—anything from touching cold water to being under a great deal of stress can provoke a flare-up. People with milder forms of the illness often find their own ways to deal with it, but anyone with symptoms should see a doctor to rule out the secondary version. 

Iron Deficiency Anemia
Iron deficiency anemia—usually the result of blood loss or an insufficient diet—causes fatigue, dizziness, and an inability to stabilize body temperature. These symptoms occur because iron is necessary for proper thyroid function; when the body doesn’t have enough of it, body-heat regulation—which our thyroids contribute to—is compromised. 

Anemia is most common in women, especially those past puberty and those who are pregnant. In fact, that’s probably why women tend to feel cold more often than men—because of our monthly cycles, they typically have lower iron levels. Taking supplements and incorporating iron-rich foods into your diet can help, but some diseases, such as Celiac’s, make it difficult to absorb iron. People with anemic symptoms should always consult a doctor to get diagnosed and receive proper treatment. 

Melt the Ice in a Hurry
If you don’t feel particularly stressed, don’t have the symptoms of Raynaud’s or iron deficiency anemia, and still get cold feet and hands more easily than most people, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to an icy life. Try these techniques that might minimize the problem—or at least warm you up faster. 

  • For quick relief, put your extremities in warm water (showers are immediately helpful) or move your arms and legs in quick circles. Even a little aerobic exercise will get your blood pumping.
  • Keep hydrated to encourage blood flow
  • Learn to love spicy foods. Using liberal amounts of hot ingredients, like red chile flakes and cayenne pepper, will raise your inner body temperature.
  • Foods rich in omega-3s—like fish, walnuts, soy, and leafy greens—reduce blood vessel constriction
  • Get checked out for cardiovascular diseases, which can block blood flow through blood vessels, and thyroid issues
  • Try yoga. Some poses, like downward-facing dog and bridge, promote great circulation. 

Personally, I’ve learned to never leave home without a good pair of gloves (a lesson my mom has drilled into me). But that’s only a temporary solution to a bigger problem. This winter, I refuse to live with hands and feet that could freeze fire. Instead, I’ll embrace yoga and five-alarm salsa and limit my exposure to smoke and stress. I think I feel warmer already!

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