People with Raynaud’s disease are at the other end of the spectrum from people who blush at the drop of a hat. But, instead of having blood vessels that open readily, they have vessels that constrict too easily, usually in response to something cold. When you have Raynaud’s, you can walk into an air-conditioned room or even reach into a picnic cooler, and suddenly your fingers feel oddly cold, even numb and tingly. As you watch, the tips go dead white, then blue, and (after you frantically warm them up again), a bright, throbbing red.
About 5% of the population has Raynaud’s disease, and for most of them, it’s a harmless, if annoying, condition. A small number of Raynaud’s sufferers do run into trouble with circulatory problems, but good prescription medications are available when this occurs.
The best treatment, everyone learns pretty quickly, is simply to avoid the cold. In addition, some supplements and herbs can be helpful in reducing your susceptibility to Raynaud’s. Let’s see what they are and how WholeHealth Chicago can help.
What is Raynaud’s disease?
Raynaud’s disease is a condition in which tiny blood vessels in the fingers, toes, nose, and ears go into spasm (called vasospasm). This reduces blood flow, so tissues get less oxygen. As a result, the skin changes color and may go numb or tingle; it feels cooler as well. Symptoms can last from minutes to hours. First noted in 1862 by French doctor Maurice Raynaud, the disease is bothersome and mildly discomforting but not linked most of the time with other more dangerous conditions. Women from ages 15 to 50 are most vulnerable to Raynaud’s disease, but it can strike anyone at any age.
- Tingling, numbness, or a drop in skin temperature in affected areas
- A change in skin color, from white to reddish blue
- Changes in skin texture over time
- Fingertip sores in serious cases
What Causes Raynaud’s disease?
Experts know that Raynaud’s symptoms are due to an overreaction of the blood vessels, but they have never identified the precise cause. The theory is that the nerves in the areas where this is most common respond abnormally, most often to cold stimuli such as lower outdoor temperatures, the icy air in a refrigerator or air-conditioned room, or the chill from holding a cool drink. Stress is also a trigger. Raynaud’s symptoms may be a side effect of decongestants, birth control pills, and some heart or migraine medications. Injuries, frostbite, and surgery can cause Raynaud’s. Finally, Raynaud’s disease may be job related: It has a higher-than-average frequency in pianists, typists, workers who hold vibrating machinery such as chain saws and drills and others whose jobs involve the hands.
Raynaud’s disease can exist alone but often comes in conjunction migraine headaches, atherosclerosis, hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or the blood-vessel disease scleroderma. When it accompanies another condition, the disorder goes by the name of Raynaud’s phenomenon or secondary Raynaud’s.
Treatment and Prevention
Vasodilators (medications that relax the blood vessel walls) may work for people with secondary Raynaud’s (related to another condition). They may also help people with the 40% to 60% of people whose primary Raynaud’s hasn’t responded to other approaches.
Once you become familiar with your Raynaud’s patterns, you’ll be able to avoid its triggers. For example:
In the winter, keep out the cold by wearing heavy socks and mittens, which hold in the warmth better than gloves.
Slip on gloves before reaching into the freezer at home or at the store.
Avoid taking decongestants; check out other medications you take with your doctor to make sure they don’t trigger symptoms too.
Avoid nicotine and caffeine, which cause blood vessels to constrict. In one study, researchers found low levels of selenium and vitamin C in the blood of women with Raynaud’s disease. Vitamin C levels were particularly low in smokers. It’s too soon, though, for researchers to make any recommendations about vitamin C intake as a treatment or preventive for Raynaud’s disease.
How Supplements Can Help
Raynaud’s disease is often a chronic condition, so supplements do the most good when taken daily.
Vitamin E enhances blood flow. Vitamin E may potentiate the effect of anticoagulant drugs, so if you are taking any blood thinning medicine, check with your doctor before starting this nutrient.
Magnesium, known for its many benefits to the cardiovascular system, dilates the tightened blood vessels of Raynaud’s disease. Magnesium is best taken with food. If diarrhea develops, cut the dose.
Inositol hexaniacinate is a relative of the B vitamin niacin that stimulates blood flow in the arms, fingers, legs, and toes. Though it improves circulation, this form of niacin does not cause the unwelcome flushing associated with regular niacin.
The herb ginkgo biloba is known for its ability to open the smallest blood vessels. Look for a version that is standardized to contain at least 24% flavone glycosides.
In one study, the gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) in evening primrose oil improved Raynaud’s symptoms when rubbed into the fingertips. You can use evening primrose oil by itself or in combination with other supplements. An acceptable substitute is the less-expensive borage oil, which also contains GLA.
Fish oil supplements may work if other supplements don’t. In one small test, people taking fish oil were symptom-free for 15 minutes longer than those not taking it. If you have diabetes, speak with your doctor about the dosage. High doses can affect blood sugar levels for the worse.
Biofeedback and relaxation exercises may help relieve symptoms.
Be especially careful to avoid injury to areas that are prone to Raynaud’s disease.
Because fish oil has been shown to help, try to eat oily fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines) at least twice a week.
When to Call a Doctor
- If the skin becomes tight, shiny or smooth in affected areas
- If tiny sores develop in affected areas
- If you lose dexterity or become numb during an attack
- If any Raynaud’s symptoms become more frequent or severe
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: Lacking either a known cause or cure, Raynaud’s is most often treated as a chronic condition, mainly requiring patients to remember to keep their hands protected from cold. The supplements listed here may be helpful if you use them on a long-term basis. They can all be taken together, and the cumulative effect may be beneficial in especially stubborn cases.
In addition, try to decrease the amount of simple carbohydrates in your diet (the sugars often found in processed foods). On the other hand, increasing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids (in the form of salmon, olive oil, flaxseed oil) will reduce the inflammatory component of Raynaud’s.
How to Use the Supplements
Vitamin E aids the flow of blood through the arteries and also the tiny arterioles in the extremities that seem to spasm in cold weather. Magnesium is an excellent cardiovascular mineral; in the case of Raynaud’s, it may relax constricted blood vessels and return color and warmth to the skin.
You might also try adding the B vitamin inositol hexaniacinate, which improves blood flow to the extremities. If, after one month, the inositol hexaniacinate is ineffective, then add ginkgo biloba, an herb that opens constricted small blood vessels.
One study showed that rubbing borage or evening primrose oil into fingertips and toes improved Raynaud’s symptoms. Both oils contain gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an essential fatty acid necessary for skin health. Another study found that taking evening primrose oil capsules orally reduced the severity and frequency of Raynaud attacks.
If your Raynaud’s doesn’t improve with these supplements, add fish oil capsules. Although one study did show improvement using fish oil, the dose recommended requires four capsules a day. You may be able to reduce this number if you regularly eat oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and tuna.
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.