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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 — physical, emotional, mental, social — your health takes a hit. Normally, if the stress isn’t too big and doesn’t last too long, your body recovers and bounces 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 lasts for a long time, your body never gets the chance to recover. And the stress beats up your health.

Over time, your body recalibrates to this lower level of health, where all health problems start to appear. Your body descends down what we call “The Spectrum of Health,” into the sickness state.

The Spectrum of Health and Stress

The Spectrum of Health helps you understand your body in terms of health issues.

On the healthy side of the spectrum, your hormonal health is awesome. This means protective hormones like testosterone (for men), progesterone (for women), pregnenolone, DHEA and active thyroid hormone all have high baseline levels. These hormones dictate youth, vitality, recovery and health.

READ MORE: 5 Best Supplements To Reduce Cortisol: Lower Cortisol Levels Naturally

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

These hormones all have an important role in the body. But when elevated too much, too long or without adequate amounts of the protective hormones, they damage your health.

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

The Top 5 Unhealthy Signs Of Hidden Stress

While common health ailments are usually good signs of high stress levels, there are other hidden stressers that are negatively affecting your health.

Keeping an eye out for these and using your diet, exercise and lifestyle to reduce the root cause will go a long way towards improving your health and increasing your quality of life.

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1. Cold Extremities

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

When your stress metabolism starts to take over, your blood volume (and other fluid outside of the cell, called “extracellular fluid”) begins to decrease as your cell metabolism dysregulates.

What this means is you have less 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, there’s 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 of high stress levels.

*A state of high stress is also a state of low metabolism. Stress metabolism pushes down a 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 carbohydrates and sodium. Both of these build up your blood volume and extracellular fluid.

Plus, it’s important that you don’t consume too much fluid. While you should avoid dehydration, overhydration is just as bad (and is much more common). Since the water-mineral balance instincts in humans is highly evolved, eat sodium based on taste and drink water or fluids 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, 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. (Measured orally; or, around 98 degrees F or 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.

READ MORE: What Are the Effects of High Cortisol Levels?

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

There are specifically two 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 your oral temperature is below 98 degrees (or underarm temp is below 97.5), there’s a good chance your metabolism is reduced due to excessive stress.

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

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

I recommend measuring multiple days in a row to get an average. (Some days you’ll be warmer or colder; if you sleep in, you’ll likely be warmer).

A man leaping off a cliff

Temperature Decreasing After Eating

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

Meals like this shut down stress pretty effectively. If this causes your body temperature to drop, it means 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.

Boosting Body Temperature

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

A good approach is to focus on the four S’s: salt, sugar, starch and saturated fat.

3. Dysregulated Sleep

When the stress hormones get out of hand and produce energy for you, you fall out of your normal circadian rhythm. This is the “clock” that your body instinctively runs on. Normally, stress hormones will rise throughout the night, then spike in the morning (to wake you up). After that, they stay in the middle range throughout the day, raise whenever you face an immediate stress (like exercising) and drop back down in the evening.

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

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

READ MORE: How to Take Cortigon to Reduce Stress and Lower Cortisol Levels

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. You’re unable to fall back asleep. This is a surefire sign that adrenaline has spiked early.

If you can get back to sleep, when you’re actually 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.

An image of a man sleeping

How to Get to Sleep

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. This amino acid is incredibly calming and promotes sleep quality. Another good option is to take ashwagandha, a relaxing adaptogenic herb that lowers stress hormones.

Next, keep a salty, carby snack near your bed for if you wake up in the night. If you find yourself waking up with the racing heart and dry mouth, try eating a few saltines to shut down that adrenaline. Getting more glycine can also help here.

Finally, use a bright light on your eyes to wake you up in the morning. I have an infrared light by my bed that I use when I first wake up. I place it on my closed eyes while I take my body temperature measurements. This bright light signals to your body that it’s daytime and that it needs to wake up and get you going.

4. Brain Fog and Concentration Issues

Ever feel like you’re in a complete haze, unable to form coherent thoughts, direct your mental energy or even be 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 you’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. This results in less brain plasticity, slower learning and worse memory.

What’s more, when you work on lowering stress, you might end up feeling more tired and less focused temporarily. If the stress hormones were giving you just enough energy to get by, what do you think happens when you turn them off? Then you rely on your low baseline of energy, which is also not good. That’s right, you feel completely wiped out, similar to after a workout.

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” that do just that.

Specifically, one nootropic compound called phosphatidylserine, or PS for short, decreases stress hormones like cortisol, according to research. It does this while naturally improving cognitive function at the same time.

While PS is naturally occurring in the brain and you can get it from food, I recommend supplementation. A supplement will get you the adequate amounts needed for optimal effects.

An image of a woman eating donuts

5. Poor Appetite and Weight Gain

Finally, a major but 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 reduces your total caloric expenditure and increases the amount of calories that get stored as fat.

In the wild, this makes sense. During starvation, you’d conserve as much energy as possible. Then, you store whatever energy you could get in the most energy-dense form possible — fat.

READ MORE: How to Lower Cortisol Naturally Without Drugs

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

If you’ve tried losing weight but have “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 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

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 so gradually.

Personally, I find that weight loss is completely effortless when my temperature is high. But it’s next to impossible in a low temperature state, 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 in our modern lives.

This same stress system that helped us survive in the wild is now tearing us down. We allow ourselves to be chronically exposed to stresses from the environment, our food, our actions, our friends and family, even 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 and Concentration Issues
  • Poor Appetite and Weight Gain

If you can be more aware of the signs, you can 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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