Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
If you’ve got a clogged pipe in your kitchen or bathroom, any plumber will tell you that it can eventually affect every room in the house. The same is true for your circulatory system-that complex network of arteries, veins, and capillaries that transports oxygen-rich blood throughout the entire body. Anything that impedes the free flow of blood can eventually impact other bodily systems, from your head to your toes.
When Small Is Big
Your arteries and veins usually get all of the attention when it comes to circulation. But science is increasingly discovering the important role microcirculation plays in health. Made up of approximately 60,000 miles of tiny capillaries, arterioles, and venules (minute veins that connect the capillaries to larger veins), the microcirculatory system transports nutrients to cells and also aids the macrocirculatory system by delivering oxygen and removing metabolic waste. This intricate network also regulates blood flow and the amount of blood that infuses the tissues, controls blood pressure and body temperature, and modulates inflammation.
As complex as this system is, it’s no wonder things can, and do, go awry. Arterial blockages can occur when these extremely small blood vessels become damaged or blocked. As a result, they can no longer feed an artery, and atherosclerotic lesions or plaques can form. Over time, a buildup of arterial plaque can block blood flow to the heart, brain, or extremities and increase your risk of a heart attack, stroke, or peripheral artery disease (PAD).
Threats to Healthy Circulation
Certain medical conditions can damage your arteries and reduce blood flow. Unhealthy cholesterol levels contribute to the buildup of arterial plaque. High blood pressure-at or above 140/90 mmHg-can injure the lining of your arteries, technically known as the endothelium. This, too, can leave you vulnerable to the accumulation of plaque that can slow the flow of blood. Another factor that can injure the endothelium is diabetes. Uncontrolled blood sugar not only encourages inflammation, it increases triglycerides and decreases “good” HDL cholesterol. It’s also been linked to high blood pressure. It’s no surprise that people with diabetes are at twice the risk for coronary artery disease and PAD.
Your habits and lifestyle choices can also boost your risk of poor circulation. Consistently eating a diet filled with sugar, refined carbohydrates, and unhealthy fats negatively affects cholesterol, triglycerides, and glucose levels. Plus, it contributes to weight gain. Cigarette smoking also causes poor circulation by constricting blood vessels and, over time, injuring the smooth endothelial lining. Numerous studies show that smoking reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen through the body and increases the threat of developing high cholesterol. Another risk factor is inactivity. A sedentary lifestyle promotes sluggish blood flow simply because of the lack of movement. If you spend your days sitting behind a desk or in a car, it’s important to move your body periodically and adopt a regular exercise routine.
While each of these factors individually can impact the circulatory system, they can do real damage when combined. Fortunately, many of the risk factors for poor circulation can be reduced or eliminated with some healthy lifestyle changes and targeted supplementation.
Do You Have Poor Circulation?
Here are some signs of sluggish circulation:
- Numbness in hands or feet
- Muscle cramping
- Cold hands and feet
- Pain in your legs when walking
- Swelling in your legs and ankles
- Headaches and dizziness
- Brain fog
- Slow wound healing
- Low sex drive
What’s the Best for Circulation?
Cardio-also known as aerobic-workouts get the blood pumping throughout your entire body. Research conducted at Texas A&M University shows that exercise relaxes blood vessels, allowing for increased blood flow. Another study presented at the 2009 Canadian Cardiovascular Congress reported that older diabetics could improve artery health by an impressive 15 to 20 percent in just three months with aerobic exercise. The researchers noted that regular exercise acts like a drug on your blood vessels, reducing inflammation in a way similar to high doses of steroids.
7 Foods for Better Blood Flow
No matter how many supplements you take, you won’t get the full measure of their circulation-boosting benefits unless you pair them with a healthy diet. Replace overly processed foods with healthier choices like those below:
Avocado contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and antioxidants that support healthy arteries. What’s more, a study published in the journal Food and Function found that adding half an avocado to a hamburger reduced postmeal inflammation and halted the nearly 23 percent decrease in blood flow found among those eating a plain hamburger sans avocado.
Coldwater fish offers up a hefty dose of omega-3 fatty acids that can tame systemic inflammation throughout the circulatory system and help prevent blood clots. Pick wild-caught options such as anchovies, herring, salmon, sardines, trout, or tuna, and aim to eat at least three 5-oz. servings per week.
Dark chocolate is packed with flavonoids that help reduce blood pressure, decrease LDL oxidation, and boost endothelial function. A clinical trial in the British Journal of Nutrition found that eating just a little more than an ounce of dark chocolate each day improved endothelial function and microcirculation. It also increased basal blood flow volume by 22 percent.
Pomegranate juice may be the new breakfast drink of choice for those with poor circulation. During a study of 45 volunteers conducted by the Preventative Medicine Research Institute and California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, this tart juice was found to increase blood flow 17 percent in just 90 days. The study also showed that blood flow actually decreased 18 percent among the volunteers drinking a placebo beverage.
Seeds, especially sunflower and pumpkin, are rich in vitamin E, which has been shown to help prevent clotting and improve blood flow. These super seeds also provide powerful antioxidants that discourage LDL oxidation and protect endothelial tissue from damage along with assisting in the production of red blood cells.
Tomatoes are a rich source of lycopene-a natural antioxidant linked to healthy circulation. Research shows that these ruby red fruits prevent platelet aggregation and blood clots that can lead to thrombosis. To unlock this powerful compound, make sure to cook your tomatoes first.
Walnuts may help you snack your way to healthy circulation. A clinical trial from the University of Barcelona shows that walnuts improve artery elasticity and increase blood flow. Unlike other nuts, walnuts are rich in alpha-linolenic acid, as well as the amino acid L-arginine and vitamin E, which researchers say help to improve vascular flexibility and prevent harmful vascular blockage.
Barlean’s Heart Remedy Swirl is a creamy emulsion (in yummy Mixed Red Berry flavor) featuring purified palmitoleic omega-7 fat.
Nordic Naturals Omega LDL features high amounts of DHA and EPA, along with CoQ10 and cholesterol-lowering red yeast rice.
Reserveage Nutrition Resveratrol 250 mg is made from organic grapes and contains trans-resveratrol, thought to be the best form.
Solgar No-Flush Niacin has 500 mg of this heart-healthy B vitamin in one capsule. This advanced formula is gentle on the body.
Wakunaga Kyolic Total Heart Health Formula 108 blends organic Aged Garlic Extract with B vitamins and L-arginine.
Super 8: Top Artery-Smart Supplements
Maintaining a healthy blood flow is crucial for optimal cardiovascular health. The following supplements have been shown to enhance circulation and help maintain healthy arteries, veins, and capillaries. While each of these supplements can support a healthy circulatory system when taken individually, their effectiveness is increased when taken in combination.
Omega-7 fatty acids
Palmitoleic acid is a purified and concentrated form of one specific omega-7. Initial human studies have found that palmitoleic acid helps lower unhealthy triglycerides, reduce harmful LDL cholesterol, and raise beneficial HDL cholesterol-all of which benefits circulation and heart health.
(CoQ10) supports circulation by inhibiting the formation of blood clots. Findings in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry show that CoQ10 protects arteries by preventing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. Unfortunately, the body’s natural stores of CoQ10 decline with age, but taking supplements can help restore levels.
Fish oil protects blood vessels thanks to two omega-3 fats-docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Studies show that they help lower high blood pressure and triglyceride levels. They also modulate mechanisms of atherosclerosis, including inflammation, blood clotting, and platelet aggregation.
L-arginine is an artery-protecting amino acid that boosts nitric oxide levels. This causes blood vessels to relax, permitting improved blood flow. As you get older you may need more of this nutrient than your body and diet can supply. Fortunately, you can boost your intake of L-arginine with supplements. While safe under most circumstances, it’s wise to avoid L-arginine if you suffer from low blood pressure.
You may want to consider taking L-arginine with Aged Garlic Extract (AGE): A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial found that AGE, when combined with L-arginine and certain B vitamins, can reduce coronary artery calcification. Researchers used Kyolic Formula 108 in the study, which was conducted at the UCLA Biomedical Research Institute.
Nattokinase is an enzyme in fermented soybeans that helps reduce blood pressure. According to research in Nutrition Research, nattokinase dissolves excess fibrin in blood vessels, which improves circulation. It can also reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol; reduce blood viscosity; and improve blood flow. A word of caution: Since nattokinase can increase bleeding tendencies, talk with your doctor if you take warfarin (Coumadin) or an antiplatelet drug such as aspirin or Plavix.
Niacin is a B vitamin best known for its ability to raise HDL cholesterol levels. But niacin is also a valuable tool to dilate blood vessels and enhance microcirculation. This is indicated by the well-known “flush” that can occur after taking a niacin supplement. This flush can create an uncomfortable tingling sensation and a feeling of warmth. You can help prevent this reaction by taking niacin at bedtime with a dose of stinging nettles. It’s also wise to work with your doctor if you opt to take this supplement, since it may affect liver function at therapeutic doses.
Vitamins A, C, & E
Vitamins A, C, & Emay improve blood flow by preventing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. Oxidation reduces the activity of nitric oxide, a substance that promotes the dilation of blood vessels. This was shown in a study published in the journal Advances in Clinical and Experimental Medicine. According to the researchers, this trio of antioxidants may promote healthy blood flow by preventing the damage caused by oxidized cholesterol.
Resveratrol which is found in red wine and red grapes, affects the health of the cells lining blood vessels. It also triggers the release of nitric oxide, which plays a key role in the relaxation of blood vessels. If that weren’t enough, resveratrol helps lower LDL cholesterol and prevents blood platelets from clumping together. This suggests that resveratrol can improve vascular function.