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Got Cold Feet?

Here’s what frosty footsies can mean for your health

feet crossed with winter socks in front of a fire

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Chilly extremities could be a sign of stress, high cholesterol and a number of other ailments.

Ever hang your stockings by the chimney with care, only to wish you could take them down and stick your toes in them? If your feet often feel cold — or if your bedmate lets out a yelp every time you climb beneath the covers — it might mean nothing more than you need a new pair of slippers for Christmas. But chronic cold feet (and cold hands) can also be a sign that you need to make some lifestyle changes. For example:

Relax more: When you’re under stress, the body pushes blood toward your core and away from your extremities. (That’s why we say someone who is losing their nerve is getting “cold feet.”) Colds and flus, work or family issues — they can all ratchet up our stress and cause footsicles. 

SOLUTION: Take it as a sign that you need a little exercise, a nice cup of tea and repeated viewings of A Christmas Story.

Get off your butt: Do you sit at a desk all day and fail to get much on-your-feet time during off hours? Sitting for prolonged periods can reduce circulation to your lower extremities, as well as having a number of other negative health impacts. “We found that working to reduce sitting throughout the day improved physical function, more so than increasing formal exercise to the recommended 150 minutes per week," says Bethany Barone Gibbs, assistant professor, Department of Human and Physical Activity, University of Pittsburgh.

SOLUTION: If you can’t walk it off, and a standing desk isn’t an option, at least make it a habit when you sit to adjust your posture, stretching or moving feet and legs frequently. A 2015 study found that sitting with your legs crossed interferes with blood flow volume to a far greater degree than sitting with both feet on the floor. 

Quit puffing: Nicotine can make it harder for blood to reach all the body parts. Studies have shown that by making it harder for blood to reach fingers and toes, smoking lowers the temperatures of the extremities and can even put you at greater risk for frostbite.

SOLUTION: This one’s not as easy as it seems. It’s nicotine in any form — whether from a vape, gum, chaw or Santa’s pipe — that harms the circulatory system. Getting to zero nicotine, by any means necessary, should be your goal.

Scrutinize statins: Atherosclerosis is caused by plaque buildup in the arteries, and it often makes itself first known in the legs. Your feet may appear bluish when you sit, and pale or white when you are lying down. 

SOLUTION: Ask your doctor whether your cholesterol is being properly managed, and consider addressing the issue with dietary changes and statins. Research shows that statins can improve leg blood flow in middle-aged or older people. Or, if you’re not afraid of making the Naughty List this year, ask whether Viagra might be an option. In one study, people with Raynaud’s disease (reduced circulation to the hands and feet) reported significant improvement in their symptoms after taking 50 mg of Viagra twice a day for four weeks. 

Nosh more nutrients: Not enough iron, vitamin B12 or folate can reduce red blood cell count, leading to reduced circulation and a case of tundra toes.

SOLUTION: Lay off the sugar cookies and decorate your holiday plate with red (fruits) and green (veggies). Meat, eggs and nuts are rich in both iron and B12; most darkly colored vegetables are top sources of folate; and peanuts contain all three nutrients.

Handle your hormones: An underactive thyroid gland throws off your metabolism, affecting your circulation and body temperature. In addition to feeling cold, you may also notice fatigue and weight gain.

SOLUTION: Tired and overweight describes the majority of Americans, but if things don’t feel quite right to you, consult your doctor. Hypothyroidism contributes to higher cholesterol levels, so hormone treatment may solve a number of health issues — and keep those doggies from freezing.

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