Mind and Body

Why Some People Get Cold Feet

Folk wisdom links cold hands and feet with a warm heart. But that wisdom also refers to the natural process in which the body slows or reduces circulation to the hands and feet in order to boost blood flow and warmth for the internal organs in response to cold conditions.

Photo of couple dressed for the cold

But in some people, that response to cold is too strong or happens unexpectedly, leading to chronically cold feet, or hands, or both.

To find out why that happens, scientists took a closer look at this reaction and were able to find specific proteins in the skin's blood vessels that react when exposed to cold.

Natural protection

"Our bodies are engineered by evolution to conserve heat and energy," says Martin Michel, M.D., at Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany and co-author of the study.

"One way of doing this is limiting blood flow to the skin by making blood vessels constrict," he says. "Norepinephrine [a hormone and neurotransmitter] does this via alpha-adrenergic receptors on muscle cells in the blood vessel wall. We only want this to happen when it is cold."

But, says Dr. Michel, that response can go awry.

Response to cold, stress

In one example, Raynaud's disease causes the body to respond to cold or stress by narrowing blood vessels in the fingers and toes, which can then feel numb and turn from white to blue to red during an attack.

"The mechanisms get active at a 'normal' outer temperature," Dr. Michel says. "This could involve too many alpha-adrenergic receptors or that the [temperature] set-point or something in the regulation mechanism goes wrong."

The study, published in the journal Cell Physiology, found new influences on adrenergic receptor function in small blood vessels, says senior study author Maqsood Chotani, Ph.D., at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

New understanding

"The alpha-2C receptors had been identified many years ago, but the exact function of this alpha-2C subtype in blood vessels was very intriguing to me," Dr. Chotani says.

Early tests showed that one of the receptors was inside the cell and not on the cell surface like other receptors in the same family.

Previously, scientists believed that the receptor didn't do anything in blood vessels - it was like a silent receptor, according to Dr. Chotani.

But that's not the case.

It seems the alpha-2C receptor has a specialized role, perhaps as a stress-responsive receptor and in this case, actually conserving body heat.

Now, scientists have a specific path to follow - one that may find a way to warm hands and feet, as well as hearts.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

Arthritis Foundation - Raynaud's Phenomenon

CDC - Cold Stress

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute - What Is Raynaud's?

October 2012

What Is Raynaud's Phenomenon?

Raynaud's phenomenon is a disorder in which blood flow to the fingers decreases. It can also affect the ears, toes, nipples, knees, or nose. This lowered blood flow can happen in response to cold, stress, or emotional upset.

These are the most common symptoms of Raynaud's phenomenon:

  • Color changes in the fingers, moving from pale white to blue, and then to red, when the hands are warmed

  • Swollen and painful hands when warmed

In severe cases, sores or gangrene may develop on the fingers.

Although Raynaud's phenomenon has no cure, you can successfully manage your condition with proper treatment.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

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