As a child I used to suffer terribly with chilblains, mainly on my toes but occasionally on fingers as well. I haven’t had any problems for years – since training to be a herbalist – I remember having them for the last time during my final year of training, so adopting a healthier diet and lifestyle has made a difference. I was recently asked if I could help with chilblains, so I’ve written this article for anyone who may be suffering.
Chilblains are a medical condition known as perniosis, which occurs in susceptible individuals when exposed to cold conditions. Damage in the capillary beds in the skin result in redness, itching, inflammation and sometimes blisters. As well as fingers and toes, chilblains can also occur on the ears and nose.
General recommendations include keeping warm and avoiding sudden changes in temperature, a generally healthy diet, and regular exercise. A quick internet search came up with many topical treatments including onion, garlic, lemon, potato, friar’s balsam, and Epsom salts, however I was more interested in figuring out why some people are more susceptible and therefore what was happening physiologically or metabolically, and what foods, herbs or lifestyle practices would be of benefit to prevent and/or cure chilblains rather than just treating symptoms.
The first factor is circulation and health of your blood vessels, in particular the capillaries – the tiny blood vessels that penetrate and supply nutrients to the tissues. General circulation can be supported through exercise, ideally daily exercise but at least four times per week. Exercise that increases your metabolism (speed, strength and power activities) – personally I’m a big fan of high intensity interval training (HIIT) – but anything that raises your heart rate and is sustained over 20 – 60 minutes will fit the bill. The other factor, which may be overlooked, is smoking. Smoking reduces circulation especially through the tiny blood vessels such as those supplying the skin.
The key nutrient that came to mind when thinking about healthy blood vessels and reducing leakage from the capillaries was vitamin C. Natural vitamin C is found in foods along with bioflavonoids, which support the microcirculation and capillary health. Vitamin C is found in fresh fruit and vegetables. Much of the produce available in supermarkets is imported or picked before it’s fully ripe, which means that the levels of vitamin C are very low. To eat fresh, it should be picked as required. Frozen fruit and vegetables are often higher in vitamin C as they’re generally frozen on the day of harvest. Excess stress and smoking deplete your body of vitamin C, which means that smokers and stress bunnies need more.
I also maintain that improving thyroid health will reduce the incidence of chilblains by supporting the ‘internal heater’. Thyroid hormone increases your metabolic rate, and by having a good metabolic rate, you should feel generally warmer with less sensitivity to the cold. One of the signs of poor thyroid function is cold hands and feet, and I’ve found that by giving appropriate herbs and supplements to clients to improve thyroid health has resulted in noticeably warmer extremities. Nutrients that are necessary to support thyroid health include iodine, vitamin A, and zinc, and the key herb is kelp or bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosis).
Dietary factors that can increase your internal temperature include eating or drinking more warm or hot foods – salads and cold food can wait until the weather warms up again. Adding warming herbs and spices such as black pepper, ginger, turmeric, chilli, horseradish, onions and garlic to your meals helps to increase circulation and warmth throughout your body. Soups and curries are great winter foods, and can be used therapeutically as well.
Herbal medicines that support the circulatory system and health of the blood vessels include hawthorn, bilberry, ginkgo, horse chestnut, and prickly ash. A combination of these herbs in a therapeutic dose, plus the dietary and lifestyle changes mentioned already should see you through the winter in good health without the discomfort of painful and itchy chilblains on your extremities.