Cold hands and feet: Why do I get cold hands and feet?

You’re in bed under a warm, toasty duvet, and yet your feet feel like they’re inside a freezer. Perhaps you’re in bed with someone and as their toes touch your bare feet you jump because it feels like someone’s put ice cubes in your bed. Or perhaps you’re just going about your day, constantly aware that your hands and feet are cold all the time. Sound familiar? A lot of us suffer from cold hands and feet. Women in particular are more prone to it (see “Low Metabolism” below for why). What causes cold hands and feet? And can we do anything about it?

Cold hands and feet causes

1.) We’ve adapted to divert blood away from the skin surface when it’s cold


In cold environments, your  body has evolved to divert blood away from extremities like fingers and toes to help you retain heat. When warm blood flows at the skin surface, you lose more heat by convection and radiation, so our bodies have adapted to constrict the blood vessels at the skin surface so that little blood flows here when your body detects you’re in a cold environment.

For women, their blood begins to divert away from the extremities at 70°F (=21.1°C)

For men, their blood starts to divert away from the extremities at 67°F (=19.4°C)

So the solution to cold-caused hands and feet is to put the thermostat on 70°F or above if you can!

Otherwise, dress up warmly, preferably in layers. Wool is a nice warm choice. If you’re going out, a hat and gloves or mittens are a good idea if it’s cold out.

But often we have cold hands and feet even when it’s above 70°F and it’s not particularly a cold environment. So what’s happening here?

2.) Dampness

When hands and feet are damp or sweaty, body heat is lost in evaporation of the liquid to the air, so they feel colder.  The liquid molecules with the highest kinetic energy turn to gaseous form, leaving your hand or foot with low kinetic energy liquid molecules which generate less heat.

To prevent dampness you have to look into the question: “why do I sweat so much?”.

Until you get to the root cause behind excessively damp hands and feet, you can prevent sweaty hands and feet by dusting them with powder to soak up the dampness, as other people would use a hand or body lotion for dry skin.

A lot of foot powders on the market and talcum powders have nasty chemicals in them, so I’d advise you to look at ingredients carefully. Talc has been inconclusively linked with breathing problems and increased cancer risk, and parabens which can be found in these types of powders disrupt normal hormone functioning.

Instead I’d recommend either buying a talc-free, paraben-free variety, (two good ones I’ve found are Burt’s Bees Baby Bee Dusting Powder and Little Twig’s Organic Unscented Baby Powder) or making your own.

To make your own anti-dampness powder, all you need is a ratio of roughly 70-60% cornstarch and 30-40% baking soda. You can scent it with any essential oil of your choice, from Lavender, to Rosemary or Lemon to anything you like. My personal two favourites in terms of scent are Valor and the rather expensive Rose. I would recommend using specifically a Young Living essential oil as I’ve found these to be the best therapeutic grade brand. (Email me for details about purchasing them in the UK). You don’t have to scent it, but if you do add an essential oil, I advise sticking the powders and oil in a zip-lock bag, shaking it well, and then letting the mixture dry for a couple of hours. Break up any clumps if any have formed, and then you can pour the powder into an airtight powder-dispenser and use it to dust sweaty hands and feet as necessary, even sprinkling it between fingers and toes.

Also, be sure to wear warm, water-proof clothes if you are going to be out in the damp. Gore-Tex shoes and boots are a great choice for keeping your feet both dry and warm.

Example selection of some Gore-Tex goods:

3.) Poor Circulation & Circulation Problems can cause cold hands and feet

Your blood is what carries warmth around your body. If your warm blood is not flowing in large enough amounts to your hands and feet, it fails to warm them up.

Your blood may not be flowing to your extremities for various possible reasons including:

(a.) Vasoconstriction:

This is when your blood vessels (=vaso) are narrowed (=constricted), thereby reducing the warm blood flow to your hands and feet. Vasoconstriction could be stimulated by several causes listed below:

i. Stress: Stress or fear activates the sympathetic nervous system and adrenaline production, both of which cause vasoconstriction. So constant stress could be linked to constant cold hands and feet. This is why when people are anxious they may suffer from sweaty and cold palms. Incidentally, vasoconstriction from stress is also the mechanism by which stress causes high blood pressure.

To prevent stress-related cold hands and feet, you need to work on getting to the root of your stress. Figure out what causes it in your individual case, and work on this. Until then, you can try various relaxation methods to help you manage the stress, and thereby reduce the coldness.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a good one to try.
You can even try visualization exercises, imagining a warm golden light warming the cold parts of your body. This is simultaneously warming and relaxing. You can also try visualizing yourself sitting in front of a beautiful fireplace, warming your hands and feet in front of the crackling logs and dancing flames. Studies have found that visualization exercises such as these raise body temperature by as much as 3-4°C

ii. Excess vasoconstricting food: Some foods encourage vasoconstriction including: cold foods, and tyramine-rich foods including chocolate, cheese, salami, liver meat, caffeine, wine, beer and alcohol in general in high amounts. You can try substituting these foods with low-tyramine alternatives and see if it alleviates your cold hands and feet.

Always be sure to eat warm and hearty food if you have a tendency to suffer from the cold. Avoid cold foods.

Foods you are intolerant or sensitive to could also cause vasoconstriction because they add stress to your body as it tries to deal with them. Check if you might react to certain foods by observing if they give you digestive symptoms, headaches, a blocked nose or any other reaction. If you suspect you might be sensitive to a food, try eliminating it from your diet for 21 days and see if the coldness of hands and feet subsides.

Omega 3-rich foods (like mackerel and other oily fish, linseeds and walnuts) keep blood vessels supple and may help reduce vasoconstriction from inflammation. Topping yourself up with omega 3 with a good fish oil, like Eskimo-3 Liquid Fish Oil (US) (UK) is very helpful for most of us too.

iii. Vasoconstricting medications: These include certain antihistamines, amphetamines, decongestants, hypotensive drugs, amongst others. Always read the warning leaflet for possible side effects from medications.

iv. Vasoconstricting recreational drugs: cocaine, caffeine, LSD, amphetamines

v. Smoking: Smoking narrows blood vessels and causes poor circulation, exacerbating cold hands and feet.

vi. Calcium excess: Calcium is a vasoconstrictor so if it’s present in excess in your body it may be linked to cold hands and feet. To get into a state of calcium excess you’d need to be taking supplemental doses of calcium, or have problems with the parathyroid glands. You can check your calcium levels with a simple blood test.

(b.) Low physical activity

means blood is not pushed around your body as well as it could be:
Exercise gets your heart pumping more blood around your body, especially to the areas of your body at work, so if hands and feet are involved in the exercise, blood will flow to them too, warming them up.
Not only is the heart stimulated to pump blood around the body with exercise, but also the various body muscles themselves help squeeze the blood and other body fluids like lymph along.

We should all strive for at least 20 minutes of exercise a minimum of 3 times a week to keep at optimal health, and to keep you as warm as a freshly baked biscuit!

Even something simple like twirling your arms around like a windmill and wriggling your toes every time they feel cold should help warm your hands and feet if poor circulation is behind it.

(c.) Traditional Chinese Medicine: Qi Stagnation

Qi is the force that keeps everything flowing in our body according to Chinese medicine. If Qi is stagnant, circulation is poor.

To help keep the Qi flowing smoothly, the following help:

  • Exercise helps, whether it’s your favourite sport, yoga, or Qi gong
  • Avoid stagnating foods: e.g. cold food, raw food, cheese, alcohol, excessive coffee
  • Avoid stagnating eating habits: e.g. eating large meals in one go, eating late at night
  • Avoid suppressing your emotions because Chinese medicine believes this leads to stagnation of Qi
  • Eat Qi-moving foods: Herbs and spices like: chilli pepper, ginger, basil, clove, garlic, orange peel, tangerine peel, caraway, cayenne, coriander, marjoram, turmeric, cardamom, chive, dill seed, star anise. Top of the list are spicy ones like cayenne pepper, chilli pepper and ginger. Spicy food in general gets things moving!
  • Rub on some Qi-moving essential oils: A great one I use to get circulation going is Cypress by Young Living (US)
  • (for UK availability email me)

  • Massage can help lift Qi stagnation and from a Western point of view can also help get the blood flowing. Massage with warming, Qi-lifting essential oils maximize the effects.
  • Dry skin brushing can help lift Qi stagnation and can help blood flow from a Western perspective too.
    Some nice brushes you can get in the US include Body Brush Purest Palm 9″ L and Body Brush Natural Bristles
    Brushes you can get from the UK include this one or this one .

(d.) Shallow Breathing

Shallow breathing can contribute to poor circulation. Getting into the habit of breathing from your belly can help improve your circulation. You know when you’re breathing optimally when your belly expands on an in-breath and your shoulders don’t move up at all.

(e.) Excessively tight clothes

Very tight clothes can reduce circulation to certain areas of your body, so loose-fitting clothes are definitely better for your blood flow. Poor-fitting tight shoes are also best avoided.

(f.) Rarer causes of poor circulation

In rarer cases, poor circulation could be due to more serious conditions like:

  • Raynaud’s syndrome
  • Cardiovascular disease e.g. Atherosclerosis, Peripheral vascular disease, Heart disease
  • Lung problems

4.) Low fuel means low heat production

We make our body heat through metabolising food that we eat. If we don’t eat much food, we can’t make much heat. For this reason, feeling cold is common if you haven’t eaten in a while, and is also common to be a constant problem for anorexics and people suffering from malnutrition.

Some less obvious causes of malnutrition could arise from gut parasites eating your food, or malabsorption problems where in spite of eating, you’re not absorbing your food and so can’t make heat from it. All these can be easily tested for when you see a nutritionist or naturopath.

Eat hot and hearty meals, and go for 5-6 small meals a day. This will keep topping up your fuel levels, rather than 2-3 big stagnating meals a day whose fuel runs out sooner. A breakfast of hot oatmeal, or a light mid-day meal of a steaming bowl of soup or congee, a delicious vegetable stirfry, or a filled omelette, are four examples of hot and hearty meal ideas. If you spice them up with Qi-moving herbs like chilli, cayenne, garlic and ginger – all the better!

5.) Low metabolism

Even if you have sufficient fuel (food), sometimes your body’s way of converting that fuel into energy is suboptimal. The process by which we convert fuel into energy is known as metabolism, and when the body systems responsible for metabolism are not working at their best, you might experience cold hands and feet.

One of the main organs involved here is the thyroid gland, and its products, the thyroid hormones. These play a huge part in making your body hot or cold. When the thyroid is functioning suboptimally, it’s known as hypothyroidism and results in you feelings cold, particularly with cold hands and feet.

Things that could be contributing to hypothyroidism are wide and varied and are beyond the scope of this article, but include nutrient deficiencies for iron, iodine, protein, essential fats, selenium and copper. Iron deficiency may be behind the higher incidence of cold hands and feet in women, as women lose iron in menstruation, particularly if it’s heavy.

To ensure good thyroid function and metabolism, make sure you’re eating plenty of foods rich in these thyroid-supporting nutrients.

GPs sometimes prescribe iron supplements for low-iron-linked cold hands and feet, but iron is one of the supplements I’d only recommend if you’ve been clinically tested and found to have anaemia. It’s not one to take “just in case”, because it is slightly oxidizing when supplemented unnecessarily (as in, it does the opposite of what antioxidants do!).

6.) Nerve-related cold hands and feet

This is a rare cause, but if there is an injury to a nerve, it could make hands and feet more prone to feeling cold. This is the case in someone who has a history of using vibrating machinery like a jackhammer, or in people with carpal tunnel syndrome, where injured nerves can give the sensation of cold. Diabetes-related neuropathy could also be linked to cold hands and feet.

7.) Dehydration

Yet another reason to drink those 8 glasses of water a day! Low water intake means a lower blood volume, which means that blood pressure is reduced, and therefore blood flow has less oomph behind it. So keep well hydrated if you want warmer tootsies. Herbal teas and hot broths are a great way to keep hydrated too.

As tempting as it is, stay away from hot coffee and hot toddies because although they may seem to fight the cold initially, they are the type of drinks that cause warmth to rise to the surface of your skin, evaporate it, and then you’re left with a colder inner core. In the long-run they also make you more prone to suffering from the cold due to their vasoconstricting and dehydrating effects.

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A selection of Herbal teas you might want to try:

Note: If you go for spicy varieties, it serves as both hydrating and getting circulation moving.

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Disclaimer:
Every effort has been made to ensure that the information contained in this article is accurate. However the information contained in this article is for educational purposes only. Suggestions contained in this article are not intended as a substitute for consultation with a health professional. All matters regarding health and supplementation require medical supervision and careful examination of contraindications. The author does not accept responsibility for the use of this information, nor shall the author be liable for any loss, injury or damage allegedly arising from any information or suggestions in this article.

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10 Responses to Cold hands and feet: Why do I get cold hands and feet?

  1. Don S says:

    I’ve really tried cutting back on my coffee intake and overall I’ve been successful. I can see why it’s called a stagnant food. One of the things I eat every day are omelettes with cheese and vegetables. Those help me in the mornings.

  2. Li-Or says:

    Hi Don,

    That’s great you’ve cut down on your coffee. Whilst in small amounts it can help lift stagnation, in large amounts it does the opposite, and has so many other negative side effects on the cardiovascular system, adrenal system, and blood sugar levels that it’s definitely something worth cutting down on.

    Omelettes are great. Eggs are a type of superfood because they are so rich in protein and nutrients! And with veggies in there, sounds like a great meal! Notice I am saying nothing about the cheese…. :D

    Thanks for your comment :)
    Li-Or

  3. Min says:

    Very efficiently written article. It will be valuable to anybody who uses it, as well as yours truly :) Keep up the good work – can’t wait to read more posts!

  4. Amelia says:

    I just wanted to thank you for the brilliant idea of suggesting making up our own anti-dampness powder with cornstarch. I’ve made up a batch and put it into a small icing-sugar shaker and have been using it for several weeks now instead of talcum powder and it is fantastic! Really, very effective in keeping my toes dry! My feet as a result are not so cold at night in bed, and they feel very comfortable during the day as well. I also feel so much safer not using talc anymore. Thanks for your help!

  5. Serena says:

    This is really interesting, You are a very skilled writer.

  6. Mule says:

    Normally I don’t learn article on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up was wonderfully informative and helpful! Thank you, very nice article.

  7. PURITY GATHONI says:

    am also a victim of getting cold on my feet and hands though not that much since at times i get warmer once i get busy like walking, staying in a cool place and dressing much warmer clothes.

  8. Matt Stone says:

    Not bad except for the part about water. It’s okay to drink some water and tea and stuff like that, but only if it is consumed with a considerable amount of salt. Both salt and water are required to build greater blood volume, which is why intravenous saline solution contains 9 grams of salt per liter. Most people with cold hands and feet have some degree of reduced metabolic rate, which further increases the need for salt and decreases the need for water. In general, a higher ratio of salt to water is helpful for someone with cold hands and feet, not the other way around, and drinking for reasons other than thirst (such as being cold and going for some hot tea) really exacerbates the condition once the warming effects of the hot fluid wear off. Other than that it’s a pretty solid article.

  9. paleo says:

    Awesome. My thanks for posting this. I’ll check back to read more and recommend my friends about it.

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