If you’ve ever suffered from tremblingly cold hands and feet despite the temperature or the excessive number of layers you wrap yourself in, you feel my pain. Though unpleasant, the good news is that cold hands and feet are pretty common and usually aren’t anything to worry about—some people are just more sensitive to temperature changes. In fact, David Greuner, MD, a cardiovascular surgeon and co-founder of NYC Surgical Associates, explains that constricting blood vessels is the body’s normal reaction to cold temperatures in order to help preserve your body’s core temperature. “This process, called vasoconstriction, reduces blood flow to extremities such as your hands and feet, keeping the blood flow to the center of the body to keep your core warm,” he says. And it tends to happen more often in women than men, mainly thanks to fluctuating hormones (thanks, estrogen!).
But why do you get it when folks around you seem totally temperate? As it turns out, there are a few other culprits that could be to blame, some of which are a tad more concerning than regular old hormones. Here, we asked the experts to reveal some of the lesser known causes of cold hands and feet.
You have low thyroid function
If your cold hands are also accompanied by low energy (especially in the afternoon), weight gain, moodiness and thinning eyebrows, your thyroid may be to blame, says Linda Dobberstein, DC, nutritionist and wellness expert. The most common thyroid diagnosis for this set of symptoms is hypothyroidism, also known as an underactive thyroid. “If your thyroid numbers are normal and you’re still experiencing these symptoms, this could indicate sub-optimal thyroid function, meaning your thyroid could simply use a little love,” Dobberstein adds. “Fortunately, there are some key nutrients your body needs to make thyroid hormone and support healthy function.” She recommends filling your plate with nutrient-rich foods, ideally those that contain large amounts of selenium, tyrosine and iodine, such as beans, olive oil, almonds, walnuts, vegetables (but avoid the cruciferous kind), and low-fat meats.
You’re under high stress
We all get stressed out occasionally, but if you feel like it’s been months or even years of living an intense, fast-paced lifestyle that comes with a great deal anxiety, it might be time for a vacation—or a major move. Stress affects your adrenal system, and any dysfunction in this area can lead to cold hands and feet. “Some people notice that their hands and toes get cold before a stressful situation, such as an important meeting with their boss or a presentation in front of a large audience, but, when the meeting is over, their body temperature warms up,” says Dobberstein. “If this happens, focus on stress management techniques and stress-busting nutrients that support the adrenals, like coenzyme b vitamins and magnesium glycinate.” Interestingly, these same nutrients are used up by caffeine intake.
You’re not getting enough protein
Whether you’ve been put on a low-protein diet due to a kidney-related condition or simply don’t gravitate towards protein-heavy foods, being short on this nutrient is another cause of cold hands and feet. It can also result in muscle loss, which additionally adds a cold front. “Eating half of your ideal body weight in grams of protein is recommended for healthy muscles and metabolism,” says Dobberstein. For example, if your ideal body weight is 140 pounds, aim to get 70 grams of protein per day. But don’t go overboard. She recommends avoiding excessive intake of soy protein, as that can slow metabolism. Your best bet: consume the most protein in the morning (ideally 25 grams), as it can help boost your metabolism throughout the day.
You are iron deficient
Also known as anemic, this condition results from low hemoglobin in your blood, or when your body does not make enough red blood cells. The result is a decreased oxygen supply in the body and, as a result, less oxygen being delivered to your hands and feet (which is what makes them cold AF), explains Dr. Greuner. Luckily, most of the time, anemia can be treated with a simple iron supplement.
Although rare, this condition is pretty much solely symptomatic of cold, and often numb, fingers and toes, especially in situations of high stress and cold weather. “It causes the blood vessels in the fingers and toes to become overly constricted and can even cause temporary color changes from white, blue, purple and red,” explains Dr. Greuner. “To help treat this condition, it’s recommended you wear extra layers of gloves and socks, but if severe enough your doctor may prescribe you medication.” If you do have Raynaud’s Disease, quit smoking immediately, as it can actually lead to finger and toe loss as a result of the cumulative effects on cutting off blood flow.
Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)
“PAD is a condition that is most common in older adults and occurs when arteries become narrowed or blocked due to plaque build-up in artery walls, and decreasing the blood flow to your extremities,” explains Dr. Greuner. “Signs of PAD in addition to cold hands and feet include pain while walking, wounds or injuries that take a long time to heal.” While there’s no one cure for PAD, treatment consists of minimizing the symptoms and preventing the condition from progressing. Dr. Greuner recommends avoiding cigarette smoking at all costs, eating a well-balanced diet, and making sure you get regular physical activity.
“It’s very common for people with diabetes to develop diabetic peripheral neuropathy, a type of nerve damage,” explains Dr. Greuner. One symptom of neuropathy? Cold feet. “Often times people with diabetes may also have other health issues such as thyroid problems or PAD, which can also can be attributed to cold hands and feet,” he adds.