Possible Causes: Thyroid issues, anemia, B vitamin deficiency, poor circulation, anxiety, Raynaud’s phenomenon
When a patient reports perennially cold hands and feet, “the first thing I think about is the thyroid,” says Amy Savagian, MD. Poor thyroid function isn't the only reason for chilly extremities, but it's among the most common, especially for women.
The leading reason for thyroid issues in the United States is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an ailment in which the immune system attacks the body’s own thyroid gland. Women are seven times more likely than men to have Hashimoto’s, also it frequently goes undiagnosed.
Other causes of cold hands and feet include anemia, a deficiency in iron or certain B vitamins, or generally poor circulation.
Anxiety can even play a role. “Anxiety can lead to contraction of the blood vessels,” says Savagian, making it harder for blood and oxygen to reach the body’s extremities.
A circulatory disorder called Raynaud’s phenomenon will sometimes constrict the little arteries in the hands and feet so severely in response to cold that digits go numb and turn pale or bluish. It can take as much as 15 minutes for normal circulation to come back. This disorder tends to disproportionately affect slender women, Savagian notes. Although it might appear alarming, it is rarely serious enough to require medical treatment.
What You Can Do: Keep your core warm, suggests Savagian, because blood prioritizes the vital organs. Then get moving. When it comes to improving circulation, “being active is incredibly beneficial for the peripheral arteries,” she notes. Studies have shown that fish-oil supplementation can also help ease Raynaud’s symptoms.
Avoid lifestyle triggers, for example smoking and excessive caffeine consumption, that create the blood vessels to constrict. Manage stress and anxiety. If you suspect a vitamin or mineral deficiency, ask your doctor to run tests for iron and B vitamins.
If cold hands and feet are a persistent problem — and you experience other Hashimoto’s symptoms, such as fatigue, thinning hair, weight gain, and dry skin — consider ordering a thyroid test. (Find more on this at “Listen to Your Thyroid.”)