If you have perpetually cold hands and feet, you likely know how frustrating the sensation can be—especially when gloves and socks don’t provide adequate relief. It turns out, though, there may be a remedy for icy extremities that doesn’t include any outerwear; rather, you can regulate your circulation by changing the way you breathe.
If that sounds surprising, leave it to breathing expert and bestselling author Patrick McKeown to explain
The link between breath & cold extremities.
According to McKeown, cold hands and feet are very common in people with poor breathing patterns. When you breathe too hard or too quickly, it constricts your blood vessels (as opposed to slow, nasal breathing, which releases nitric oxide—a molecule that plays an essential role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen into cells). When your blood vessels constrict, “it causes less oxygen to be delivered throughout the body,” says McKeown. And thus, freezing fingers.
Additionally, when you over-breathe, you get rid of too much carbon dioxide: In case you need a biology refresher, CO2 gets transported from the bloodstream to the lungs, but it also helps regulate blood pH—so you don’t want to get rid of too much of it in your bloodstream.
Says McKeown, a shortage of carbon dioxide shifts what’s referred to as the oxyhemoglobin dissociation curve: “When you lose too much carbon dioxide and blood pH increases, hemoglobin—which is the main carrier of oxygen in the blood—doesn’t release oxygen so readily.” And as we mentioned above, less oxygen in the blood vessels often results in cold hands and feet.
What to do about it.
Of course, breathing patterns aren’t the only reason for cold extremities. There are a host of reasons why your fingers and toes feel icy (a thyroid imbalance could be another culprit, for example), but focusing on your breath is a rather low-lift experiment to try. To that end, McKeown shares a couple of ways to strengthen your breathing and warm you up.
First and foremost, nasal breathing is essential: “When you’re a mouth-breather, you typically breathe faster through the upper chest,” he says. Whereas nasal breathing and nitric oxide help chauffeur oxygen and nutrients to your cells. McKeown even saw personal success with this simple shift: “I noticed I could bring increased temperature into my hands,” he says.
Or, he notes, you can opt for specific breath exercises: “Put one hand on your chest and one hand just above your navel and gently start slowing down the speed of your breathing,” he explains. Focus on the airflow coming into the nose and having a really relaxed, slow, gentle exhalation.” The feeling of air hunger, or the desire to inhale once again, “signifies that carbon dioxide has increased in the blood,” says McKeown. This may help your extremities feel warmer.
There are many possible explanations for cold hands and feet, and it’s important to speak with your doctor to get to the bottom of your specific experience, but one potential reason may lie in the way that you breathe.