Train for Cold Tolerance

We get questions from people with Raynaud’s asking if it’s possible to train for cold tolerance – can your body acclimate to better accept cold temperatures? While it’s challenging, it appears there’s some promise on cold therapy for people with Raynaud’s.

Dr. Murray Hamlet at the Army’s Research Institute of Environmental Medicine developed a method of training the way the body responds to cold exposure. Interviewed by the New York Times in 1988, Dr. Hamlet reports it builds on a procedure first explored by an army doctor in the 1970’s at a lab in Alaska. Here’s what’s involved: 3 to 6 times a day, immerse the hands in warm water indoors. He suggests using an ice chest for the warm water because it’s needed for the second step – go outside in cold weather and expose the body to the cold, except for the hands, which are submerged in the ice chest full of warm water. After about 50 rounds of this process (nobody said it was an instant solution!), you’ve trained the blood vessels not to constrict when presented with cold temperatures. Dr. Hamlet ran a test with this design using 150 Raynaud’s sufferers and labeled it a success. There’s one caveat: It won’t likely work for those with secondary Raynaud’s associated with more serious autoimmune diseases or other direct causes, but it is promising for those with the primary form, which covers the large majority of Raynaud’s sufferers (90%).

In 2010, Dr. Fredrick Wigley, one of the world’s leading experts on Raynaud’s, reported the results of a similar study in the New York Times. Instead of using warm water, this research project involved training the body to tolerate increasing amounts of cold exposure over a series of visits where patients’ hands were placed in an ice box (the article doesn’t state for how long). Initially, the study group experienced Raynaud’s attacks 70% of the time. During the second visit, the percentage dropped to 50%, and the third exposure triggered attacks in only 30% of patients. Dr. Wigley states, “We think this reduction of success of our cold challenge was due to acclimation to the exposure.” He also references Dr. Hamlet’s test in the article as another approach to train for cold tolerance, so the original test is recognized as valid by the medical community.

We hadn’t heard much about this method for some time until recently when The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Train Your Body to Work Out—or Just Hang Out—in Colder Weather.” It doesn’t reference people with Raynaud’s. In fact, it contains a caveat for the elderly and people with certain health conditions to be cautious, particularly as it can weaken the immune system. But the Army and medical researchers who studied the method among Raynaud’s patients don’t warn against potential risks for those with the disorder.

The Wall Street Journal article suggests cold showers, building up from 10 to 30 minutes intervals. If cold water is truly intolerable, just go outside with limited clothing and gradually increase exposure in a similar way. Eventually the brain will be trained to perceive cold as less of a threat, which is exactly the issue occurring during Raynaud’s attacks: Frosties have an exaggerated response to cold and stress that mirrors the fight or flight response. It’s just that our threshold for attacks is lower than the average person’s.

Several physical benefits are suggested, including lowering the heart rate and improving mental functions such as attention and memory. In addition, the training challenges the body much like exercise does. We’ve also seen data that suggests the body burns fat more when exposed to cold. (See our post titled “Can Temperature Training Make Us Warmer and Slimmer?.”)

If this procedure has proven to help Raynaud’s sufferers reduce attacks, why aren’t more doctors sharing the concept with patients? That’s a good question. Maybe bring it up with your doctor on your next visit. And if you try this idea, please share your experience with us!

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