This is a good question, one that has puzzled and frustrated people for many years. Most medical personnel will advise their patients that chronically cold feet may be an indication of a serious medical condition that should be diagnosed and treated. This is much different from the slang term “cold feet” which people have used when they are afraid or overly cautious about getting involved in something.

The basic cause of cold feet is lack of proper circulation to the extremities of the body. The warmth of the blood that is pumped from the heart keeps the rest of the body at a constant temperature in normal circumstances. But when this re-oxygenated warm blood does not reach the feet and hands as it should, the temperature of these areas of the body can go down quite a bit.

Doctors have found that a specific condition called Raynaud’s phenomenon can contribute to a regular feeling of having cold feet, cold hands or both. This condition is characterized by tightly constricted blood vessels in the hands and feet (these vessels are already very small). A lack of circulation results in a lower temperature. Medical research has also identified peripheral vascular disease (PVD) that results in inadequate circulation in the feet and hands. Studies have shown that people who suffer from diabetes often have PVD that can only be treated with special medicines or major changes in diet and exercise.

But there are hundreds, even thousands of people who just have feet that feel colder than the feet of other people. Not all cold-feet conditions are caused by a medical problem. In fact, for many very healthy people, cold feet wouldn’t be described as a condition at all. It’s just a part of life. However, if this situation progresses to the point that it creates more serious issues, such as swelling or problems walking for example, it is probably time to talk with a trusted physician.

So, in the absence of a serious medical condition, what is it that causes us to have cold feet sometimes and not at other times? The answer, in a word, is “stress.” According to medical information and academic literature stress and anxiety can have a similar effect on the body as being exposed to cold temperatures. During these times, blood is directed to the more vital internal organs at the core of our bodies. This is a natural reaction meant to preserve life by protecting the heart, lungs and other organs.

While the extra blood that is directed to the core organs is small (perhaps 10 percent of the total blood in the body is sent to the vital organs) this change takes the blood from the extremities such as the hands and feet. Thus, during stressful situations, we get cold feet, as our body works to keep us alive. This natural reaction is closely related to the release of adrenalin during times of stress and danger. This extra adrenalin is part of the reason that the smaller blood vessels constrict to reserve blood for the vital organs. The next time you feel you have cold feet, you should understand that it may just be a natural reaction to the situation.


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Lucas Beaumont
Generalist. Wikipedia contributor. Elementary school teacher from Saskatchewan, Canada.

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