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Can Stress Cause Cold Feet? 5 Unhealthy Signs Of Hidden Stress

An image of a person with cold feet

We all know that stress is the silent killer.

Each time your body activates a stress response – whether it’s physical, emotional, mental, social, etc. – your health takes a small hit.

Normally, if the stress isn’t too big and doesn’t last too long, your body will recover and bounce back to normal. If the stress is adaptive, like exercise, your body will actually become more resistant to stress.

But when the stress is big or when it lasts for a long time, your body never gets the chance to recover, and your health continues to get pummeled.

Over time, and with enough stress, your body recalibrates to this lower level of health, where all health problems start to appear.

Your body begins to descend down what we call “The Spectrum Of Health”, into the sickness state.

The Spectrum Of Health

The Spectrum Of Health is a core concept to help you understand the context that health problems arise in.

On the healthy side of the spectrum, your hormonal health is awesome, meaning the protective hormones like testosterone (for men), progesterone (for women), pregnenolone, DHEA, active thyroid hormone, etc., all have higher baseline levels. These hormones are associated with youth, vitality, recovery, and health.

This side of the spectrum is also characterized by lower levels of stress hormones and hormones related to the “stress cascade”, like adrenaline, cortisol, estrogen, prolactin, serotonin (which is actually the “hibernation hormone”, not the “happy hormone”, especially in excess), etc.

These hormones all have an important role in the body, but when elevated too much, for too long, or without adequate amounts of the protective hormones, they are damaging to your health.

And this is the exact situation that happens on the sickness side of the spectrum – the protective hormones are all lowered, while the stress hormones are all chronically raised. This continually breaks the organs and tissues of the body down, causing dysfunction and many of the health issues we face today (this is especially true for autoimmune diseases).

The Top 5 Unhealthy Signs Of Hidden Stress

While common health ailments and diseases are usually a good enough of a sign to point to having high stress levels, there are other signs that can help you pick up on hidden stresses that are negatively affecting your health.

Here are the top 5 most common ones. Keeping an eye out for these and using your diet, exercise and lifestyle to reduce the cause of these (ie. stress) will go a long way towards improving your health and increasing your quality of life.

1. Cold Extremities

Many people suffer from cold hands and feet without realizing that it’s a sign of increased stress levels.

When the stress metabolism starts to take over and you begin to move down the Spectrum of Health, your blood volume (and other fluid outside of the cell – called “extracellular fluid”) begins to decrease as your cell metabolism becomes dysregulated.

What this means is that you have less volume of blood in your body, leading more of it to stay near your organs and important tissues needed for you to stay alive.

Since more blood is in your core, where all your organs are, there is less blood in your extremities, like your hands, feet, tip of nose, tip of ears, etc.

Since blood carries warmth, this means your extremities are left much colder – a clear sign you have high stress levels.

 

*A state of high stress is also a state of low metabolism, as the stress metabolism pushes down the healthy thyroid metabolism, lowering your overall energy production.

A simple way to start increasing your blood volume and lowering your stress levels today is to eat more carbohydrate and sodium, both of which build the volume of the blood and extracellular fluid.

On top of this, it’s important that you don’t consume too much fluid. While it is important to avoid dehydration, overhydration is just as bad, and is much more common.

Since the water-mineral balance instincts in humans is highly evolved, it’s best to eat sodium based on taste, and drink fluid/water based on thirst.

In other words, if you crave salty foods, eat more sodium. If you’re thirsty, drink more water. Pretty simple, right?

2. Poor Body Temperature Patterns

In addition to stress and cold feet (or other extremities), your overall body temperature can also indicate where you are on the health spectrum.

Ideally, humans should have a body temperature around 98.6 degrees F or 37 degrees C (measure orally, or around 98 degrees F / 36.6 degrees C measured under the arm). This may fluctuate a bit from person to person, and it will also fluctuate through a woman’s monthly cycle.

But in a stressed person, they’ll often see lower body temperatures, or dysregulated patterns in body temperature throughout the day.

There are specifically 2 body temperature patterns to look for:

Morning Temperature

The first one to check is your temperature, first thing in the morning, as soon as you wake up.

If you wake up and find your oral temperature is below 98 degrees (or your underarm temp is below 97.5), then there’s a good chance your metabolism, and therefore body temperature, is reduced due to excessive stress.

The scary thing is that most people nowadays will find that their morning temperature is not optimal, which is simply a result of the added environmental, social, behavioral, physical, and/or nutritional stresses in our lives.

If you work on reducing stress and raising your body temperature, you’ll be able to tell that you feel much healthier on mornings when you wake up with a normal temperature.

I recommend measuring for multiple days in a row to get a general average (some days you’ll be warmer or colder, and if you sleep in you’ll likely be warmer).

Temperature Decreasing After Eating

Another good pattern to look for is a decrease in temperature after eating a meal, especially if that meal has a lot of carbs and sodium, with little fluid.

Meals like this shut down stress pretty effectively, and if this causes your body temperature to drop, it means that the stress hormones were propping up your temperature before you ate.

When the stress was reduced, your body temperature dropped back to its “real” level, indicating that your body is running on stress.

Getting Temperature Up

Similar to how you would fix the cold extremity problem, the best way to increase your temperature is to eating more “warming” foods, like carbs and sodium, without too much fluid.

A generally good approach is to focus on the 4 S’s: Salt, Sugar, Starch, and Saturated Fat.

3. Dysregulated Sleep

When the stress hormones get out of hand and you begin relying on them to produce energy, they start to fall out of their normal circadian rhythm (the “clock” that your body instinctively runs on).

Normally, stress hormones will rise throughout the night, spike in the morning (to wake you up), stay in the middle range throughout the day, raise whenever you face an immediate stress (like exercising), and drop down in the evening.

But when you’re low on the health spectrum, this pattern changes.

Instead of spiking in the morning, you might find you have elevated stress hormones in the evening, when you’re supposed to be winding down for sleep. This leaves you feeling “wired and tired” – exhausted but unable to sleep.

Typically when the pattern gets dysregulated, you’ll also find that you wake up in the middle of the night, around 3 AM or 4 AM, with a racing heart and dry mouth, unable to fall back asleep. This is a surefire sign that adrenaline has spiked early.

Then if you can get back to sleep, you’ll most likely find that when you’re supposed to wake up, you’re out like a light. The alarm goes off and you feel miserable trying to pull yourself out of bed.

Now, when your stress hormones are supposed to raise to wake you up, they’re low and leaving you feeling incredibly sleepy.

So how do you combat this dysregulated pattern?

First, make sure you have carbs and sodium before bed to help you relax and turn off those stress hormones.

I also highly recommend drinking bone broth, or getting some form of glycine, as this amino acid is incredibly calming and promotes sleep quality.

Another good option is to take ashwagandha, a relaxing herb classified as an “adaptogen”, which is known to lower stress hormones.

Next, keep a salty, carby snack near your bed for if you wake up in the night. A good option is saltine crackers.

If you find yourself waking up with the racing heart and dry mouth, try eating a few saltines to help you shut down that adrenaline. Getting more glycine can also help at this time.

Finally, use a bright light on your eyes to wake you up in the morning.

I have a red/infrared light by my bed that I use when I first wake up, placing it on my closed eyes while I take my body temperature measurements.

This bright light helps to signal your body that it’s daytime, and that it needs to wake you up and get you going.

4. Brain Fog & Concentration Issues

Ever feel like you’re in a complete haze, unable to form coherent thoughts, direct your mental energy, or even be the least bit productive?

When stress becomes chronic, your body shuts down many of the higher functions that aren’t necessary for survival.

One of these is the ability to think on a higher level and to concentrate on complex issues.

In the wild this would make sense – why contemplate your existence or solve complicated problems if we’re starving to death? Much better to shut down that thinking and focus on finding food.

But when this happens from chronic stress in our modern world, it leads to poor work performance and frustration.

In fact, chronic exposure to cortisol has been shown to actually kill brain cells, leading to less brain plasticity, slower learning, and worse memory (study, study).

What’s more, when you work on lowering stress, you might end up feeling even more tired and less focused temporarily.

If the stress hormones were propping you up and giving you just enough energy to get by, what do you think happens when you turn them off and rely on your low baseline of energy?

That’s right, you feel completely wiped out, similar to after a workout when you finally give your body rest.

So what’s the solution?

Anything that will increase brain function without increasing stress – or even better, while lowering stress.

Luckily, there are a class of compounds called “nootropics” (pronounced “new-trope-iks”) that do just that.

Specifically, one nootropic compound called “phosphatidylserine”, or “PS” for short, has been widely researched and shown to decrease stress hormones like cortisol, while naturally improving cognitive function.

While PS is naturally occurring in the brain and you can get it from food, I recommend simply supplementing with it to get the adequate amounts needed for optimal effects.

5. Poor Appetite & Weight Gain

Finally, a major but seemingly contradictory symptom of stress is the combination of poor appetite and weight gain.

You might think that with a poor appetite you would eat less and therefore lose weight, but chronic stress makes you gain weight because it both reduces your total Calorie expenditure and increases the amount of Calories that get stored as fat.

If we look at why this might happen in the wild, it makes sense. During starvation, you would conserve as much energy as possible, and then store whatever energy you could get in the most energy-dense form possible – fat.

Of course in our world with plentiful food, living under chronic stress just causes a shift towards increased fat storage, even in the face of a poor appetite (and increased cravings for energy-rich foods, aka junk foods).

If you’ve tried losing weight but “hit a wall” despite diligently tracking your Calories and not overeating, there’s a good chance that stress is the culprit. The same goes if you feel intense cravings to binge on energy-rich foods or have poor, slow digestion. If you feel like food sits in your stomach like a rock, it’s typically a sign of poor digestion.

Ideally when you eat, you should feel a healthy hunger for real food (much different than how a craving feels), you should not want to keep eating when your stomach is full, and the meal should be digested quickly.

I’ve been on both sides of this.

In the stressed state when you’re low on the spectrum of health, you feel heavy and slow, and gain fat incredibly easily. But in the non-stressed state when you’re high on the spectrum of health, you feel light and agile, and can eat huge meals throughout the day without gaining any weight at all.

The solution to this is obvious: Lower your stress levels.

This often requires eating more food, which many dieters are reluctant to do. But if you focus on things like body temperature and the other markers of stress, you can slowly raise your food intake to reduce stress without gaining weight.

This is especially true for your carb intake, as your body is less adapted to eat carbs if you’ve been avoiding them for some time. Raise them to help reduce stress, but do it gradually.

Personally, I find that weight loss is completely effortless when my temperature is high, but next to impossible in a low temperature state, when under chronic stress.

End Stress Before It Ends You

Our bodies have adapted to handle stresses like escaping danger and dealing with famines, but not to the constant barrage of stress that happens in our modern lives.

This same stress system that helps us survive in the wild is now tearing us down when we allow ourselves to be chronically exposed to stresses from the environment, from our food, from our actions, from our friends and family, and even from our own minds.

It’s become so common that we’ve gotten used to living in this stressed state, as our bodies’ are continuing to be torn down.

That’s why these signs of hidden stress are so important.

Keep an eye out for:

  • Cold Extremities
  • Poor Body Temperature Patterns
  • Dysregulated Sleep
  • Brain Fog & Concentration Issues
  • Poor Appetite & Weight Gain

The more aware of them you can become, the more power you have to stop them and fix the problem before it gets worse.

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Ryan Tronier

Ryan Tronier is a writer and editor who has worked with NBC, ABC, and USA Today.
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