co-written by Rick Olazabal, BSc, BN
Cold feet is a common complaint from many people.
Despite it’s relatively unpleasant nature, it is typically a normal condition that can be due to cold temperature and anxiety.
Oftentimes, we blame it on “poor circulation”, and there is some truth to this….
Blood vessels in the feet and other extremities will constrict in order to preserve heat, or to bring blood back to the vital organs when exposed to cold temperatures (it’s a survival adaptation). In rare occasions, however, a serious underlying condition may be responsible for the sensation. This article will explore some of these conditions and what you can do about cold feet—the natural way.
Why we suffer from cold feet?
Physiologically, under cold conditions, it is vital that the body preserves heat, and to do so, blood vessels the extremities (e.g. feet, hands, nose, ears, etc.) constrict to limit blood flow to these areas. Just as when you’re flushed your ears and nose can be come red as a cooling mechanism, the converse is also true to preserve valuable heat.
However, conditions that lead to nerve damage in the extremities (such as diabetic peripheral neuropathy) can lead to the sensation of cold feet and pins and needles. This may also be due to vitamin deficiency, such as that experienced by chronic alcoholics. Furthermore, poor circulation due to peripheral arterial disease can limit blood flow to your feet. While these conditions are relatively rare, it is important that you speak with a qualified health care provider should you have any concerns.
What are the causes?
As we just mentioned, cold feet can result from peripheral arterial disease or peripheral vascular disease, in which arteries are clogged by fatty deposits, which reduce the size of the blood vessel and restrict blood flow. In the case of diabetic neuropathy, excess sugar in the bloodstream damages the nerve cells that control not only the cold and heat sensations, but also blood flow.
Signs and symptoms of cold feet from poor circulation:
- Blue or pale discolouration of the skin (i.e. cyanosis)
- Leg numbness (i.e. paraesthesia)
- Pain in the legs, calves and feet when walking
- Pain that increases with muscle exertion and diminishes with rest
Signs and symptoms of cold feet related to the nervous system:
- Sensitivity to touch
- Weakness or loss of strength
- Muscle weakness
- Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs
- Paralysis of a part of the body
What can be done to help?
Although rare, cold feet can be due to serious diseases, and failure to seek medical attention could result in serious implications or permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed you may follow the following tips:
- Hydrotherapy – especially alternating hot/cold foot baths – prepare two bins, one with hot water (as hot as you can tolerate without burning yourself) and a cold one (as cold as you can tolerate); you may add a few drops of your favourite essential oil. Place both your feet in the hot bin first for up to 3 minutes, then slowly dip them in the cold bin for a minute; repeat this 3-5 times; always end on cold! Your feet should feel much more refreshed and warm.
- Acupuncture – find a licensed acupuncturist or a licensed naturopathic doctor – acupuncture has been used for a few thousand years and is accumulating much scientific evidence for its use in pain management, muscle and joint tension, and blood flow stimulation.
- Exercise – needless to say that 30-40 mins of mild to moderate exercise will get your blood circulating better.
- Vitamins – deficiency in methylcobalamin (B12) and other B vitamins is associated with limb numbness, pins and needle sensation, even cold sensation. Speak with a licensed naturopathic doctor for a blood test and appropriate supplementation.
- Phytotherapy – there are herbs that stimulate blood flow (like ginkgo), and others that can be used for its warming effect (e.g. ginger). Speak with a qualified herbalist or a licensed naturopathic doctor to find out more about your options.