Habits for a Healthy Blood Circulation

When we talk about a healthy lifestyle, we often think about eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough sleep. However, it turns out that maintaining good circulation is said to be one of the most important building blocks for maintaining our good health.

Dr. Yu-Ming Ni, a cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute with Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, told US News, “the circulatory system is made up of arteries and veins that carry blood, nutrients, oxygen and waste products, such as carbon dioxide, to and from the various tissues of the body. The circulatory system has two parts to it: There’s the arteries that deliver these nutrients, and then the veins that clear the waste products away.”

Although our body has a robust system of oxygen and nutrients distribution, “sometimes circulation can be compromised”, says Elaine K. Howley in US News.

If you’ve ever experienced swelling, skin color changes or even throbbing pain in your extremities, you may be experiencing poor blood circulation. Typically felt in your arms, hands, legs and feet, poor blood circulation can be a sign of something more serious going on with your body.

Cleveland Clinic

Dr. Rigved Tadwalkar, a board-certified cardiologist with Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told US News, “Poor circulation refers to a number of different things, but in general, looking at it from a bird’s eye view, poor circulation is when blood flow is reduced or inadequate to a certain part of the body.”

Symptoms of Poor Blood Circulation

Caitlin W. Hicks, M.D., a board-certified vascular surgeon and associate professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, told Prevention, “The most common symptom of impaired circulation to the legs is claudication. It’s a condition where you may experience pain in the buttocks or calves when walking that goes away with rest.”

Cold extremities, leg swelling, and foot wounds that take a while to heal, especially if you have a family history, are all signs you should check in with a vascular specialist”, adds the Prevention.

Elaine lists the following symptoms of poor blood circulation, which I have adopted in verbatim:

  • Tingling or numbness in the skin. Feeling pins and needles or a pinching sensation can be related to poor circulation. This symptom can also be related to nerve problems, such as those caused by diabetes.
  • Feeling cold. Reduced blood flow can cause you to feel cold in the fingers, toes, hands and feet as warming blood struggles to reach these areas.
  • Color changes in the skin. “The skin may turn pale, red, purple or, in severe cases, turn black,” says Dr. Cindy Wang, a cardiologist with El Camino Health in Mountain View, California.
  • Pain in the affected area. Blocked arteries can lead to pain in the arms or legs, which Wang says can become worse when you’re moving and can improve with rest. Inadequate blood flow in the legs can cause pain in the feet and could lead to loss of toes or even the leg in severe cases.
  • Swelling in the affected area. Blood clots can cause swelling of the arms or legs, Wang says. In some people, edema, or swelling in the feet, ankles and lower legs, can be a sign of circulatory problems. “People can even have swelling in their belly” as a result of poor circulation, Ni adds. 
  • Bulging or varicose veins. Narrowed or blocked blood vessels can lead to a backup of blood and fluid in certain areas, which can lead to localized swelling. Varicose veins, which are twisted and enlarged veins near the skin’s surface, may also develop. 
  • Shortness of breath at rest, fatigue or chest pain. When heart failure is contributing to a circulation issue, you may find that you’re easily out of breath, very tired or have pain in the chest. Tadwalkar says that noticeable or sudden-onset shortness of breath is a serious symptom that should be evaluated by a health care professional as soon as possible. 
  • Muscle cramping. “With peripheral arterial disease, especially of the lower leg, muscle cramping or pain in the calves can be common,” Tadwalkar says. This may happen more often when you’re exerting yourself, such as during a workout or while walking. Ni adds that the occasional leg cramp is normal, but “if you notice a consistent pattern, that every time you go two or three blocks, for example, you get a leg cramp or leg spasm, that might be a sign of poor circulation in the artery.” Wang also notes that “if there is inadequate blood flow to the downstream tissues, there can be injury to the muscles.” In addition, she says, poor heart function “can lead to lack of blood flow to the entire body.”

The US News article describes how to diagnose the poor circulation system in detail.

How to Improve?

In the Prevention magazine article, Krissy Brady recommends the following tips to improve the circulation:

  • Regular exercise: According to Misty Humphries, M.D., a board-certified vascular surgeon and associate professor of vascular surgery in Sacramento, CA, “Walking can benefit both the arteries and veins. Contraction of the calf muscles causes venous blood to be pushed back up to the heart. The arteries dilate when patients walk and improve blood flow all throughout the body.”
  • Take more work breaks. “Alternating between sitting, standing, and walking, so there’s less demand on the circulatory system (blood flow slows down while you’re sitting and can cause blood to pool in your legs, resulting in muscle pain and fatigue); and it can keep your stress levels from getting out of whack. “By keeping stress levels down, you’re less likely to binge eat or smoke. Both of these habits can lead to atherosclerosis (plaque buildup) in the arteries that results in a narrowing of the vessels,” Dr. Humphries told.
  • Eat more fruits and veggies. A higher intake of fruits and veggies, which are abundant in nitric oxide, in our diet results in a higher intake of nitrates and other compounds in the body, which are then utilized by the body to generate nitric oxide, a chemical compound we exhale that enhances blood flow by relaxing blood vessels.
  • Stay hydrated. “Your blood is about half water, so staying well-hydrated will help keep it moving,” says Nachiket Patel, M.D., a board-certified interventional cardiologist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix. “When you’re dehydrated, not only does the amount of blood circulating through your body decrease, but your blood retains more sodium, causing it to thicken and making it that much harder for your circulatory system to do its thing”.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking causes peripheral artery disease (PAD). “Symptoms of PAD can range from leg pain with walking (claudication) to pain at rest to gangrene (tissue death caused by a lack of blood flow),” says Dr. Hicks.
  • Manage your blood pressure. High blood pressure messes with your circulation by making your heart and blood vessels worker harder and less efficiently. “A cholesterol blockage can occur in any type of artery, including heart and peripheral arteries,” says Dr. Patel. Exercising, cutting back on sodium, and reducing stress are some of the lifestyle factors that can help lower your blood pressure and improve your circulation in the process. Aim for a blood pressure less than 120/80mmHg.
  • Control your blood sugar. Elevated glucose levels can cause damage to the lining of your small blood vessels and this can mess with your circulation. “Aim for a hemoglobin A1C less than 6.5% if you have diabetes”. Your diet plays a big role here, and loading up on foods that can help lower your blood sugar naturally, such as leafy greens, whole grains, lean proteins, and legumes, can make a big difference.
  • Wear compression socks. “Wearing compression socks adds a layer of support to your veins. It helps to prevent the superficial veins that aren’t wrapped in muscle from dilating,” says Dr. Humphries.
  • Elevate your legs. “When you elevate your legs it helps take the pressure off your veins, since they don’t have to work against gravity to get blood back to the heart,” says Dr. Patel.
  • Drink green tea. Green tea contains catechins, which are compounds that help to improve blood vessel function. “Catechins have been shown to inhibit oxidation (an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body), decrease blood vessel inflammation, as well as arterial plaque buildup,” says Dr. Patel.
  • Take it easy on the booze. “Alcohol consumption at levels above one to two drinks per day is associated with high blood pressure,” says Dr. Patel.
  • Finally, have a family meeting. “If there’s a family history of early heart or vascular disease, before the age of 55 in men and 65 in women, you should see a specialist at least 10 years before you reach that age,” says Dr. Varghese. “Even without classic risk factors, your genetics and family history play a key role in plaque development.”

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