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Cold Intolerance: What Causes It and What You Can Do About It
When the temperature drops and the wind whips against you, it’s natural — and healthy — to feel the chill. Body temperature responds to the environment, and your physiological reactions (like shivering and goosebumps) are designed to help your body cope with that cold.
But for some, cold is more than a nuisance: it’s a deep, nagging problem you just can’t shake. Often, the source of your cold intolerance falls into one of three major physiological categories — metabolism, circulation, or insulation — that together keep your body running efficiently.
If you feel like you are always cold and it's starting to interfere with your daily life, it’s time to consult with your doctor and take a closer look at your whole body health. You can start by familiarizing yourself with these common causes of low body temperature, cold extremities and numbness.
Problems With Metabolism
Your metabolism is responsible for keeping your core body temperature high enough for important enzyme reactions to take place. When metabolic processes falter your core body temperature can plummet, leaving you chilled to the bone.
When diabetes goes unnoticed or uncontrolled for too long, nerves in your extremities can sustain damage, resulting in abnormal sensations. Some people feel pain, tingling or numbness in their fingers and toes, while others complain of a deep chill that’s difficult to overcome.
Diabetes can also cause kidney damage (nephropathy) that interferes with your internal temperature control. Other symptoms of diabetic nephropathy include itchiness, nausea, shortness of breath and swelling in the face or hands or feet.
The thyroid gland is responsible for metabolic regulation: when it’s working well, your body can burn the calories you take in to create heat and fuel for your cells. When the thyroid doesn’t make enough thyroid hormones to direct metabolism you develop hypothyroidism, which brings an array of symptoms like fatigue, weight gain, hair loss, muscle cramps, and a major intolerance to cold.
The hypothalamus gland in your brain is the center for temperature regulation. It’s in charge of your internal thermostat, turning it up or down as needed by directing the thyroid gland to adjust your metabolism.
Since the thalamus gland controls a host of other hormone-producing glands in the body, symptoms of hypothalamus problems can vary widely: from headache and vision trouble, to menstrual irregularity, to changes in weight or hair growth patterns. Cold intolerance and fluctuating body temperature are also hallmarks of hypothalamus dysfunction.
Problems With Circulation
Your blood flow spreads heat throughout your body. When obstacles or malfunctions interrupt the flow of blood, your tissues won’t get the nutrients and compounds they need to function well (especially those in your extremities). It’s no surprise that circulation trouble is at the heart of many body temperature issues.
The platelets and plasma in your blood help it to clot — an important reaction to injury and the threat of invasive bacteria and viruses. However, when your blood clots too easily, you could develop thrombophilia, a disorder that causes clots to form in veins and arteries. When these clots interfere with circulation by blocking small blood vessels, you may have trouble keeping your hands and feet warm.
This peripheral vascular disease (PVD), which involves the hardening and thickening of artery walls, can stem from several underlying disorders. High cholesterol can cause fatty deposits to build up and interfere with blood flow, or chronically high blood pressure can thicken the muscle in the artery wall.
In any case, the more your circulation suffers from artery thickening or blockage, the colder your extremities will feel.
Some people have blood vessels that react severely to cold weather and stress. This phenomenon is known as Raynaud’s syndrome, and can either manifest on its own earlier in life (typically between the ages 15 and 25), or come along with another systemic illness later in life (often in your 30s or 40s).
When arteries spasm and narrow, less blood can travel to the arms, legs, hands and feet. Some people notice a purple or bluish tinge to their skin when this happens, while others just feel a deep chill.
Raynaud’s can also affect the nose, ears and nipples. Although it can be uncomfortable and inconvenient, primary Raynaud’s (when it manifests on its own) doesn’t cause tissue damage; secondary Raynaud’s (when it arises as an effect of another disease) can have more serious consequences.
Problems With Insulation
Your circulatory system spreads body heat, but your natural insulation maintains it. You have different types of fat and different areas of fat storage to keep your core nourished, heated, and working at full capacity.
Muscle also acts as insulation; when you lose these layers of tissue, your body temperature is sure to suffer.
Being chronically and severely underweight can disrupt a wide variety of important processes in your body. Taking in too few calories sends your body into starvation mode, and that slows down your metabolism significantly.
It can also leave you without much natural insulation, and without a layer of fat to protect your nerves, tissues, and organs from the cold, you’re bound to feel chilly in any situation.
If you’ve recently lost a lot of weight, have changed your eating habits, or calculate your BMI to be below 18.5, it’s time to see your doctor and face the facts. Eating disorders are serious and difficult to deal with, but very possible to overcome, even in their later stages.
Lack of Muscle
Your weight may be in the healthy range, but how’s your strength? Too little muscle mass can have a big impact on your body temperature. Muscle produces heat to keep the surrounding tissue and skin warm, plus they boost your metabolism to keep your core warm.
You don’t need to pack on tons of muscle, but consider working in some free weights or more bodyweight resistance to your routine. If weight lifting isn’t your thing, yoga, Pilates or plyometric movements can help you build up all of your major muscle groups.
Chronic diseases or hormone malfunctions are scary possibilities, but not always to blame for a constant chill or numbness. In some cases, it’s your daily routine that’s leaving you cold.
The good news is that these lifestyle factors are fairly easy to change, and generally under your own control. If you can adjust your daily habits you can probably improve your body temperature issues.
Water in your cells and tissues helps to regulate body temperature. When you’re properly hydrated, this water will trap heat and release it slowly so you can easily stay at a comfortable and constant temperature. When you’re in a state of dehydration, you lose this natural thermostat and you become more sensitive to extreme temperatures.
A sleepless night could leave you with more than yawns and heavy eyelids. Since sleep is absolutely necessary to reset and reenergize a variety of automatic mechanisms in your body, not getting enough sleep will mess with everything from emotional stability to your internal thermostat. A lack of regenerative sleep also slows your metabolism, which will affect your circulation.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Vitamin B12 plays a big role in red blood cell production, which means it’s crucial for body temperature regulation, too. Without red blood cells to carry oxygen through your system, the cells in your extremities won’t get the energy (and warmth) they need. Very low levels of B12 can lead to anemia, which brings a whole set of uncomfortable symptoms on top of chronic coldness.
Although many cases of chronic cold can be tied to specific health problems, sometimes it points to poor overall health. Take some time to examine your habits, daily menu, stress level, and other aspects of your routine. You might find that you’ve been neglecting your body and mind more than you thought, and it’s time to take charge of your health again.