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  • Writer's pictureBrian Lissak

How I Cured My Raynaud's Syndrome


Raynaud's Syndrome effectively describes select symptoms of physiological stress. Knowing that, I endeavored to counteract those symptoms by restoring balance to my nervous system.


Table Of Contents

  • What is Raynaud’s Syndrome?

  • Physiology of Stress

  • Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Biofeedback Training

  • Cold Showers

  • Niacin



What is Raynaud’s Syndrome?

Raynaud’s Syndrome, also called Raynaud’s Phenomenon, describes symptoms of having excessively cold hands and feet, especially in temperatures that don’t seem to bother most people. The skin turns pale and zombie-like and can eventually turn blue. This can also be brought on by stress, independent of the temperature.


This is usually described as a blood vessel dilation issue. While this is technically true, I found that there is a deeper level to this that causes the vasodilation problems (by ‘problem’ I mean not attuned to the reality of the external situation). It has to do with the physiology of stress. By stress I mean anything stressful to the body/being, and not just the subjective experience of anxiety. Improper nutrition, sleep deficiency, lack of exercise, trauma, and of course (quasi)-existential anxieties are all stressful to our systems and result in similar physiological responses.



The Physiology of Stress

We can technically call stress at this level sympathetic arousal. This means that the sympathetic branch of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is activated, and the parasympathetic branch is inhibited. Colloquially, we call the sympathetic branch “fight/flight” and the parasympathetic branch “rest/digest.” A useful metaphor is that the sympathetic is the gas pedal, and the parasympathetic the brakes. In a calm, balanced nervous system (ie/ not stressed), there is sympathetic/parasympathetic balance. They essentially alternate with each other in concordance with the breath and allow the vehicle - you - to continue at a stable pace (I’ll explain this more in the HRV section below).


When we are stressed, however, the parasympathetic, or brake, is offline. In sympathetic arousal, the body is preparing to either fight against or flee from an existential threat (fight/flight). The body shunts blood away from the extremities and towards the core and the trunk. This is because if you’re fighting or fleeing for your life, you don’t need fine motor skills in your fingertips; you need raw power in your legs and torso. The body does this by restricting vasodilation in the extremities. Simultaneously, sweat glands open up and prepare to regulate body temperature in the ensuing life or death struggle. The hands and feet have the most sweat glands per concentrated area. Have you ever gotten nervous and had cold, clammy hands? This is why.



How I Cured My Raynaud’s Syndrome

Once I knew the physiology of stress, the symptoms of Raynaud’s Syndrome made perfect sense to me: I was sympathetic dominant. This meant that a mild stressor, such as moderately low temperatures, caused a disproportionate reaction in my nervous system. I was also, subjectively, pretty anxious. I recognized that it wasn’t really a rational feeling, as I could not exactly pinpoint an external threat, but much more of a body feeling. Shaky, cold hands, difficulty taking a full, deep breath, feeling racy.


Essentially, I figured, I just needed to recalibrate my nervous system out of sympathetic arousal and into sympathetic/parasympathetic balance. I did this using Heart Rate Variability (HRV) biofeedback training and cold showers. I also started taking a daily dose of Niacin (the type that causes flushing) to facilitate vasodilation, for about 6 weeks.



Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Biofeedback

For a much more in depth explanation of HRV training, you can read here.


Basically, HRV refers to the variation in heart rate from beat to beat. We are used to thinking of heart rate as a fairly static number, which is inaccurate. In a resting state, a person should have significant variation in their heart rate from beat to beat. This variation in rate is called Heart Rate Variability. This occurs because, in a non-stress state, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system are balancing each other, in congruence with the breath. However, if someone is anxious, they will have minimal HRV, because their parasympathetic branch is inhibited.


Every inhale activates the sympathetic branch, and every exhale activates the parasympathetic. You know this experientially. Let’s say you open a closet, and a broom falls out and scares you. What do you immediately and unconsciously do? You gasp, which is a rapid, sharp inhale, preparing your body to fight or flee. When you realize it was just a broom and there is no threat, what do you do? You sigh, which is a deep exhale, activating the parasympathetic branch to re-regulate yourself out of fight/flight and into calm coherence.


HRV training uses real time biometric readouts of your heart rate to give you feedback (biofeedback), and using the breath as the mechanism over which you have conscious control, you can reactivate your parasympathetic branch and restore balance.


HRV training can generally be done with an at home device for 10-30 minutes a day.




Cold Showers

It may sound counterintuitive to use cold showers to treat a problem where you feel cold all of the time. However, if we understand the physiology of stress, and the physiology of what happens when your body adjusts to the cold water, it becomes clear that the latter is the diametric opposite of the former.


When cold water first hits your body (be it jumping into the ocean or turning the shower cold) your automatic reaction is to gasp. This is the same gasp that happens when the broom falls out of the closet in the example above: your body rapidly shifts to sympathetic arousal because, as it senses cold at a temperature which is not long-term sustainable, your body needs to protect the vital organs. So what does it do? It shunts the blood from the extremities to the trunk and core. Sound familiar? This is the exact same physiologic response your body has when in any stressful situation, whether it be exposure to cold water, confronted by a lion, or sitting anxiously on your couch.


Once exposed to the cold water and after the initial gasp, your body will naturally hyperventilate (this is the same thing that happens during a panic attack). We can think of this as an intentional induction of the stress response. This provides the opportunity to train resiliency into your nervous system, by consciously restoring balance in the face of an external stressor. We do this by controlling the breath.


After the initial few gasps, you can begin to slow and deepen your breaths, ideally using diaphragmatic or belly breathing (as opposed to thoracic or chest breathing). By diaphragmatically breathing at a slower rate, you are signaling to your nervous system that you are safe. After a short period of time, you cease to feel cold as your nervous system restores balance.


By doing this consistently, you are training yourself to be able to remain physiologically balanced after an initial shock. This has two effects. It raises your resiliency, meaning it becomes harder to shock your system, and it gives you the experience of consciously controlling or interacting with your nervous system. You can see how HRV training and cold water exposure are nice compliments to each other.



Niacin (flushing type)

Knowing that part of the physiology of stress is vasoconstriction, and in line with everything else I describe, it made sense to me to cause the opposite: vasodilation. Niacin is a vasodilator. This means it causes your blood vessels to open up, allowing easier flow of blood.


I took the niacin every morning for 6 weeks. I took just enough to cause a slight flush feeling, but not too much that caused an intense heat flash. I discovered the right amount through a few days of trial and error.



Summary: Counteract the Physiology of Stress

The common theme in everything I described above is to counteract what happens in a physiologic stress state. The reason I did that was because I understood that the cluster of symptoms described by Raynaud's Syndrome are the same as described by the physiology of stress.


HRV biofeedback training allowed me to restore sympathetic/parasympathetic balance. Cold showers helped me strengthen and make more resilient my nervous system by artificially introducing an external stressor and overcoming it. Niacin directly counteracted the vasoconstriction my body was habituated into, and done while working with my nervous system in the two aforementioned ways allowed an overall reset.





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