Are you feeling weary? Are your hands or feet chilly, numb, or tingly even though the weather is warm? Does it seem like you’re not thinking clearly? The problem could be poor circulation, as my patient Doris discovered.
The circulatory system — composed of the heart, arteries, veins, and smaller blood vessels — is the unsung hero of good health. Like breathing and digestion, circulation operates on autopilot. We don’t have to do anything to make circulation happen, but there are plenty of things we can do to support and even improve it. That’s good, because boosting circulation benefits the entire body, including mental processes, hearing, and vision.
The Circulation Superhighway
When it’s functioning properly, the circulatory system is similar to a superhighway, shuttling traffic swiftly and efficiently to various destinations. In the best-case scenario, blood moves through the heart, lungs, arteries, veins, and capillaries, providing the cells with life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients while removing carbon dioxide and other waste products. But if blood flow is obstructed or if blood vessels are constricted, every cell in the body is affected.
Symptoms of poor circulation run the gamut, including:
- Overall fatigue
- Brain fog
- Burning or tingling sensations in toes or fingers
- Pain in the legs when walking
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling cold, especially in the extremities
What interferes with healthy circulation? A number of things, including inflammation; plaque buildup, which causes hardening of the arteries; fatty deposits; clots; hormone imbalances, especially those involving thyroid and adrenal glands; and conditions like peripheral artery disease, erectile dysfunction, and chronic venous insufficiency. In addition, a sedentary lifestyle, excess weight, smoking, and poor diet are all enemies of good circulation.
Individuals can live with disorders like peripheral artery disease (PAD) and not even know it until it’s too late. What a shame! PAD is a strong predictor of heart disease; it increases the risk of heart attack or stroke four to five times, according to the American Heart Association. Without treatment, one-third of those with PAD will die in five years, while others will lose limbs. Worst of all, those terrible outcomes could have been avoided if these people were treated.
Another circulatory disorder — chronic venous insufficiency (CVI) — makes the news occasionally because of its link to blood clots (deep vein thrombosis). This disorder can be life threatening on long airplane flights or in other situations that involve sitting in one position for long periods.
CVI makes it difficult for veins in the legs to pump blood back to the heart. Blood clots and varicose veins are two common causes of CVI. Symptoms include swelling in the lower legs and ankles, and pain when walking or soon after stopping. Patients report that their legs also ache, throb, are itchy, or feel tired. Obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, age, and weak leg muscles are risk factors for CVI. Because blood clots can be life threatening, it’s important to see a physician if you have symptoms of CVI to determine the cause and take steps to correct it.
A Moving Experience
Many times, simple lifestyle changes — especially adding regular, moderate exercise to your daily schedule — work wonders for circulation. Exercise can also strengthen the heart and help lower blood pressure, two things that support healthy circulation.
If your physician has given the go-ahead to get moving, but you’re having trouble starting — or sticking with — an exercise program, here are a few suggestions:
- Exercise first thing in the morning, so you can enjoy the feeling of accomplishment and avoid excuses, such as “I’ll do it later,” which seldom happens.
- Break up the 30 to 45 minutes of daily recommended activity into 10- to 15-minute sessions throughout the day.
- Vary your routine to prevent boredom and injuries.
- Join a social group that’s focused on a specific activity, akin to ballroom dancing, bicycle riding, or hiking. Many people find it motivating to be around others who are doing the same thing.
- Remember that doing some activity — even for only ten minutes — is better than doing nothing at all. A short walk around the block beats sitting on the couch. Believe it or not, those blocks add up!
Making smart dietary changes can give circulation a big boost. Start by eliminating caffeine, alcohol, and soft drinks. And avoid foods high in sugar, starch, and fat, all of which interfere with proper circulation.
Instead, focus on getting more fiber, which can be especially helpful for anyone with unhealthy cholesterol levels. Stop eating foods containing artery-clogging substances, such as trans fats and saturated fats. Replace them with better food choices that include good fats, like the omega-3s found in fish and fish oil supplements, olive oil, grapeseed oil, and the monounsaturated fats in nuts.
Upgrading your diet to a Mediterranean-style menu, including lots of vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, fruits, and nuts, can improve circulation, too. Clinical trials have repeatedly found that the Mediterranean diet protects against a number of serious conditions, including heart disease, which is closely linked to poor circulation.
When it comes to beverages, make it a point to drink plenty of water. Even low levels of dehydration can impair circulation by making blood thicker and more difficult to move throughout the body. Coffee, tea, and juices don’t provide the same hydrating benefits as pure, filtered water. Use a bit of flavor to make water more appealing — add a wedge of lemon, lime, watermelon, orange, a slice of cucumber, or a splash of juice.
Even the best diet can’t supply us with all the nutrients we need, and that’s especially true when it comes to healthy circulation. The family of nutrients known as vitamin B complex is a good example. Beans, molasses, meat, potatoes, lentils, and chili peppers are good sources of B vitamins. But these nutrients are water-soluble, so they aren’t stored in the body. That means supplements are the best way to make certain that ample supplies are available throughout the day. Look for a product containing the entire B complex in a balanced formula, and follow dosage instructions.
Beyond B vitamins, here are some of my other recommendations. Follow this link for more information and dosage advice on these herbal remedies:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Niacin (also known as vitamin B3) or a related supplement, inositol hexaniacinate
Remember, herbal remedies can take weeks to reach therapeutic levels in the body, so don’t be surprised if you don’t notice improvement instantly. These substances have worked for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, so please be patient. Meanwhile, detoxification methods, such as Epsom salt baths or alternating hot/cold showers, can speed up the process and boost circulation, too.
The best way to determine if your circulatory system is in top working order is to have a thorough physical examination. Several simple, painless tests can screen your heart, certain arteries, and veins for circulatory disease. In the meantime, make any necessary lifestyle alterations to encourage healthy circulation. Even small changes can add up to improvements that may not only save your health but also your life.