In my Naturopathic Practice I often hear my patients complain of cold extremities and cold feet. This symptom can be indicative of numerous conditions.
From a Western medical point of view, Hypothyroidism, Wilsons Thyroid Syndrome, Diabetes, Neuropathies, Raynauds Disease and Phenomenon, Buergers Disease and Cardiovascular diseases can all manifest by cold feet. A discussion of each of these diseases could fill books, and while each of these diseases must be excluded during a thorough examination, from a Naturopathic perspective most of the cold feet cases we see revolve around stress and circulatory problems.
Stress can cause a cold sensation in the feet. During times of stress, which some people can experience daily and constantly, the parasympathetic system involved in homeostasis and digestion turns off. The sympathetic system causing the fight or flight response, thus mobilizing our body immediate physical activity, is turned on. The adrenal glands release adrenalin and other stress related hormones, which increase the heart rate and force of contractions in order to provide blood to areas needed for a fast response. The stress hormones cause arteries supplying the skin and internal organs constrict, while the arteries supplying the heart, lungs, muscles and brain dilate. This has the effect of taking blood away from non-essential functions, such as the skin and digestion, and shunting it towards organsystems required for forceful physical activity.
A maladapted stress response has been implicated in Raynauds Disease and Phenomenon. This is an illness where a physical or emotional stressor, such as exposure to cold or a verbal argument, causes the small arteries supplying the skin to spasm and constrict. This constriction greatly decreases blood flow, causing the feet and/or hands to tingle, then feel cold. In a short period of time the lack of oxygenation to the tissues causes them to turn whitish then blue.
Some treatments of stress include identifying and addressing the causes of stress, exercise to allow the release of pent up energy, calming the mind via meditation or breathing, following an whole foods diet which eliminates alcohol, caffeine, refined carbohydrates, eats regular meals in a relaxed atmosphere and pays particular attention to vitamin C, vitamin B6, zinc, magnesium, and pantothenic acid content as these nutrients are essential in proper adrenal gland function.
A discussion of cold feet should also look at circulation. Legs are located furthest from the heart, and while gravity helps bring the nutrient rich blood down to the legs, it also makes the work of bringing blood filled with the toxins of metabolism back up to the heart difficult. Thus a weaker heart is not as effective in bringing the blood back up, causing accumulation of blood and toxins in the lower extremities. This stagnated blood cools, and causes a feeling of cold feet. Luckily for us, the human body has a support mechanism to help pump the blood back to the heart. The veins responsible for bringing the blood from the feet back to the heart have valves which allow flow in one direction only, back to the heart. When we walk, the muscles in our legs, squeeze these veins, thus pushing blood back up to the heart. This is why people who stand much of the day tend to develop varicose veins. To increase circulation and strengthen their heart, it is recommended that people participate in some kind of aerobic activity which increases their heart rate for at least 20 minutes, three times per week. Supplements which strengthen the heart include CoQ10, potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin B6, calcium, and omega-3 oils found in flax seed oil.
From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, cold feet often relate to Yang or Chi deficiency states, Chi energy stagnation, and Cold or Dampness invasion, although the specific organs affected are individual to each patient. Yang is the Fire of the body. All the processes of life require heat. Without heat, life slows down and eventually stops altogether. Our Yang keeps us warm and provides heat for all the body’s functions. If our Yang is low we cool down and our metabolism slows down.
To build the Yang means to fan up the flames, to tend the fire within. We can support this process by keeping warm and keeping moving. Physical exercise will produce heat which increases the power of Yang. At an emotional level our Yang represents our passionate engagement with life. The more we actively partake in our lives, the more we build our Yang.
When our Yang is deficient we need to avoid taking too much cold food and liquid into ourbodies as this puts out the Digestive Fire. Instead we need to favor foods and cooking methods that warm us up. Some foods which tend to tonify the Yang are Ginger, Garlic, Cinnamon, Clove, Red pepper, Lamb, and Trout. It is especially important to eat these warming foods in the winter months, as this is when the Yang can become depleted.
We make Qi by combining food and air. Our ability to make Qi will depend partly on our physical constitution, partly on our lifestyle. In its simplest sense our Qi is our available energy. We need energy for all the body’s activity: for movement, for digestion, for warding off illness, to get through the day.
We can increase our available energy through breathing, physical exercise and postural alignment. Qi easily becomes stagnant when its circulation in the body is restricted by tension. So relaxation is a major key to the liberation and formation of Qi.
To support and increase our Qi we need to eat foods which release energy steadily into our system over a long period of time. This quality is partly described in the West as complex carbohydrates which provide a sustained source of energy.
Foods which tonify Qi include Beef, Fig, Grape, Lentil, Oats, Rabbit, Sturgeon, Ginseng, Licorice, Rice, Tofu, Yam, Chicken, Goose, and Herring among others.
These are all valuable considerations, but if you suffer from cold feet, you should see a Naturopathic or Medical doctor to rule out any serious illnesses and to begin a suitable treatment plan.
Submitted for publication to Zdrowy Styl Health Magazine, 2004.