Cold hands and feet? 5 causes of poor circulation
Could your aching joints and cold extremities be down to more than just the colder weather?
Winter is officially here — the season of woolly jumpers, hot chocolates, and Christmas preparations. But what could reaching for your gloves and socks earlier than most people say about your health?
Up to 10 million people in the UK are affected by Raynaud’s syndrome , and more than 4.9 million have diabetes , both of which can cause poor circulation and leave you with cold hands and feet. Cold weather can also aggravate joint problems like rheumatoid arthritis, which affects nearly half a million people in the UK .
In this blog, we discuss:
- What is poor circulation?
- What health conditions can cause poor circulation?
- Why do people experience joint pain during winter?
- Can supplements help relieve symptoms of joint pain?
What is poor circulation?
When your body is cold, blood is drawn away from extremities (such as your hands and feet) to re-direct heat to your vital internal organs. If you have poor circulation, it means that your body is not moving blood to where it should be, and you may start to experience symptoms.
Symptoms of poor circulation include :
- Cold and/or numb feet or hands
- Dry or cracked skin
- Slow wound healing
- Hair loss on your feet or legs
- Brittle nails
As the temperature drops in winter, naturally, fingers and toes can become cold and even feel numb. However, if your hands and feet are constantly cold and aren’t warming up when adding layers or holding a hot drink, it could be a sign of circulation problems.
But what can cause these circulation problems?
What health conditions can cause poor circulation?
Several health conditions can be linked to poor circulation. In this section we will discuss the following five:
1. Raynaud’s disease
Raynaud’s is a common condition and affects one in five adults in the UK .
In people with Raynaud’s disease, the blood vessels in the hands and feet become overly sensitive to slight temperature changes (and sometimes stress). The temperature change causes the vessels to spasm and, in turn, restricts blood flow to the extremities.
Raynaud’s is not a curable disease, but symptoms can be well-managed with the right lifestyle changes.
If you have Raynaud’s, you should:
- Wear gloves and warm footwear in cold weather
- Exercise regularly
- Quit smoking
All of these can help to improve blood circulation. In more severe cases, medication may be helpful to help dilate the blood vessels such as nifedipine, but it’s best to try lifestyle changes first.
If you’re over 30, and you’re experiencing Raynaud’s symptoms for the first time, you should discuss this with your GP. That’s because it’s more likely to be Raynaud’s secondary to an underlying condition like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
Diabetes happens when your blood glucose (blood sugar) levels are too high . If you have uncontrolled diabetes, persistently high blood sugar levels can damage the blood vessels and increase the risk of peripheral artery disease causing the vessels to narrow.
It is possible to improve your circulation with diabetes by:
- Staying below your target HbA1c range
- Maintaining a healthy blood pressure
- Making sure you have healthy levels of cholesterol
- Exercising regularly according to government recommendations
3. High cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in your blood, naturally produced by the liver. Cholesterol by itself isn’t dangerous - it’s /something we need to stay healthy .
However, if your cholesterol is high, it can damage the walls of the arteries and increase your risk of heart attacks and strokes. For the same reason, high cholesterol can also reduce your blood circulation, causing cold hands and feet.
To help lower your cholesterol, it is recommended that you:
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index)
- Reduce alcohol intake
- Reduce or quit smoking
- Eat a healthy and balanced diet low in ultra-processed foods
Not sure what your cholesterol levels are? Try our Cholesterol Blood Test.
4. High blood pressure
Blood pressure is recorded with two numbers that show the systolic and diastolic pressure in your blood. This means it measures the force by which blood is pumped around the vessels and the body.
Blood pressure varies from person to person and what may be low or high for some, may not be for others.
You can check your blood pressure via a monitor and then enter your reading on the NHS website, where it will tell you whether your reading is low, normal, or high.
High blood pressure doesn’t often present itself with symptoms, but if untreated, can increase your risk of several health conditions. And because it can put a strain on your blood vessels, heart, and other organs, it may cause poor circulation.
To reduce your blood pressure, you can look at making certain lifestyle changes.
Lifestyle changes to reduce blood pressure include :
- Being overweight
- Not exercising enough
- Being over 65
- Not getting enough quality sleep
You can learn more in our blogs: what is blood pressure and how do I measure it or high blood pressure: causes, risks, and prevention.
An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) happens when the thyroid gland does not produce enough of the thyroid hormones T3 and T4.
Hypothyroidism can cause:
- Unexpected weight gain
- Sensitivity to the cold
Hypothyroidism can also affect the heart and circulatory system. If your body has insufficient thyroid hormones, it can slow your heart rate. It’s also thought that hypothyroidism makes the arteries less elastic, which can lead to raised blood pressure.
Low levels of thyroxine (T4) can also lead to raised cholesterol levels, damaging and obstructing the blood vessels. This, as well as reduced elasticity of the vessels, can lead to circulatory problems.
Thyroid conditions can be investigated and regularly checked with our Thyroid Function and Advanced Thyroid Function Blood Test. Not sure what thyroid test is best for you? Have a look at our Thyroid Buying Guide.
Why do people experience joint pain during winter?
Joint pain can occur at any time of the year, but there is increasing evidence that cold weather can worsen symptoms (especially that of rheumatic diseases such as arthritis ).
With cold air, comes lower atmospheric air pressure – this lower air pressure is believed to cause the soft tissue around joints to expand and cause muscles to spasm and cramp.
Not only is it the cold weather itself that could be affecting your joints, but it’s also to do with lifestyle in winter. During the colder weather, you are more likely to be wrapped under a blanket, drinking hot chocolates, and watching movies than you are to be out running or in the gym. However, this is the worst thing you could be doing for your joints. Exercise and regular physical movement are vital to keeping joints supple.
Don’t forget to keep drinking plenty of water too – dehydration can also be a cause of joint pain. It’s estimated that 70-80% of your joint cartilage consists of water, meaning the more hydrated you are, the easier your joints will move.
If you are experiencing joint pain all–year-round, and even more so in colder weather, it is best to speak to your GP or to investigate your symptoms. You’ll also want to rule out possible other conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, which can happen when the immune system attacks the joints, leading to high levels of inflammation.
Can supplements help relieve symptoms of joint pain?
Keeping yourself warm and moving regularly can help relieve symptoms of joint pain. But more recently, some studies have suggested that certain supplements (such as magnesium) could also help relieve symptoms.
Magnesium helps to support joint cartilage and reduces inflammation . Indeed, some studies have shown that reduced magnesium intake may cause worsening symptoms of osteoarthritis .
Arthritis and joint pain are more common as you get older and so is magnesium deficiency . If you are deficient in magnesium,  a magnesium supplement may help relieve some of your symptoms.
Though studies on magnesium supplements and their benefits in treating arthritis are limited, other supplements are more well-known for treating arthritis. The most popular supplements include glucosamine and chondroitin .
As with any new medication or symptoms, it is best to discuss them with a doctor first, especially before taking any new supplement.
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