How often do you think about your circulation? Unless you’re suffering from cold hands or feet, probably not very often. Even then you may pull on a pair of warm socks or gloves, chalk it up to poor circulation, and think nothing more of it. But there’s more to circulation than keeping our extremities toasty—good circulation is critical to good health.
Why Circulation Matters
“Blood supply allows organs to function properly,” says Carly Stewart, M.D. “If an organ like your heart, kidneys or brain does not get enough blood, some of the cells die and function is impaired.” Heart attacks and strokes are vivid examples of what can happen when organs don’t get enough blood, but lack of blood supply can less dramatically affect our organs over time. For example, poor circulation to the brain can lead to feelings of dizziness, headaches and even loss of cognitive function, and venous insufficiency, a condition in which the leg veins struggle to send enough blood back to the heart, can lead to edema (swelling). High blood pressure can also lead to varicose veins and a decreased sex drive.
Such circulation problems can quickly become a downward spiral, says Christopher Hanifin, chair of the physician assistant program at Seton Hall University who has a background in cardiac surgery and preventive medicine. Hanifin points to the interplay between the heart and kidneys as an example. “If the heart does not pump well, the kidneys are not supplied with enough blood,” he says. “Sensing this, the kidneys release chemicals to raise blood pressure and retain fluid. Doing so puts more stress on the heart.”
Good circulation is also critical in healing damaged tissues and helping fight infection. We need good circulation to bring in fresh nutrients and oxygen to tissues, and to help eliminate toxins from the body, says Christina Major, a naturopathic doctor with Crystal Holistic Health Consulting in Trevorton, Pennsylvania. The circulatory system maintains fluid balance in the body—it helps lymphatic fluids move immune-fighting cells to areas of the body suffering from infection. This is one reason why diabetics often have problems with their feet, Hanifin says—poor circulation prevents blood and nutrients from reaching the tissues efficiently.
Think about circulation like a pond, says Michael Finkelstein, M.D., author of 77 Questions for Skillful Living. “When there is no outflow of water, the pond becomes stagnant. Circulation is the same. It cleans out the garbage. Without it, our bodies would fill with gunk.”
So how can you promote and maintain healthy circulation? Don’t assume you’ll need anticoagulants and blood thinners—which can lead to side effects such as internal bleeding, aggravated ulcers and exacerbated kidney problems. Follow our expert advice to keep your blood pumping naturally.
When patients come to Finkelstein with circulation-related troubles, he looks at the whole person first. Studies have found that a lack of social support or the inability to allow ourselves downtime to recharge often leads to chronic stress. And while science has yet to determine whether stress is an independent risk factor for heart disease, the evidence clearly shows that stress can affect cardiovascular health—increasing heart rate, speeding up blood flow and increasing blood pressure. “Don’t just look at circulation from a physical perspective,” he says. “If I can help you with your approach to being, I can use a lot less medication to treat you.”
The key to creating a healthy lifestyle that promotes good circulation is staying in balance, Finkelstein says. That means maintaining healthy, supportive relationships with family and friends, as well as paying attention to your body’s natural rhythms and how you physically respond to the rhythms of the days and seasons. Good sleep is a critical and often overlooked component of healthy living in our modern lives and, Finkelstein says, it’s not just about getting seven to eight hours of shut-eye a night. It’s also about going to sleep shortly after it gets dark and perhaps increasing sleep time in winter when the days are shorter (read more about healthy sleep in “Sleep Naturally” on page 54).
It should be no surprise that exercise is another critical component to maintaining healthy circulation. Inactivity is a major risk factor for heart disease—the heart, like any other muscle, needs exercise to stay functioning well. But running on the treadmill every day isn’t enough. “Vary your exercises to work different muscle groups,” Finkelstein says.
Although intense cardio workouts will give your heart a challenge, you don’t have to join a gym or work up a brutal sweat to improve circulation. Clinical studies show that gentle, routine activities such as walking, biking, swimming or even playing in the yard with the kids can raise the heart rate and keep blood flowing, and in turn help improve circulation. “The human body was not designed to sit still all day,” Stewart says.
Our diets are another crucial component of overall well-being and circulatory health. “Circulation typically worsens with age as more and more plaque builds up in your arteries,” Stewart says. Eating a healthy diet and controlling weight, cholesterol and blood sugar are the keys to promoting cardiovascular health. The more whole, seasonal foods you eat, the better you’ll feel and the more energy you’ll have, Finkelstein says. Eating foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in vitamins and minerals can slow and even prevent plaque buildup. Choose seasonal fruits, vegetables and nuts to make sure you are eating a natural variety of vitamin-rich foods throughout the year. In the fall, that might mean eating more apples, cranberries, edamame, figs and kale.
Some whole foods have particular heart benefits. Look for foods with high levels of bioflavonoids, antioxidants known to improve cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure and total cholesterol by promoting blood flow and strengthening capillaries. Strawberries, broccoli, citrus fruits, red bell peppers, garlic and green tea are all rich in bioflavonoids. And, particularly in winter when finding fresh food is more difficult, make great use of your spice rack to help improve circulation: Ginger, turmeric and cayenne may all help reduce plaque buildup in blood vessels.
A Word on Supplements
If you have circulation problems, talk to your doctor about the potential for using supplements. Major sometimes recommends nattokinase and lumbrokinase, two enzymes thought to help dissolve abnormal blood clots, as well as fish oil, proteolytic enzymes and garlic to promote good circulation. Laboratory studies also point to ginkgo as a well-rounded circulation herb—it improves blood circulation by opening blood vessels and making blood less sticky. Look for it in capsule or tincture form.
While aspirin can help promote good circulation in people at risk of heart attack, Stewart does not recommend daily aspirin therapy without a physician’s consultation. Because aspirin is a blood thinner, it increases risk of bleeding and may also deplete stomach lining and cause intestinal bleeding.
“Think of the basics,” Finkelstein says. “Eat more fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables. Take a day off every week and unplug. Take walks, garden.”
Lifestyle Tips for Improving Circulation Naturally
• Quit smoking.
• Engage in exercise that engages large muscle groups such as walking, hiking, biking and swimming.
• Eat salmon, tuna, nuts and flax seed to get more omega-3s, essential fats that can help lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
• Reduce alcohol intake.
• Eat oatmeal, beans and brown rice for B-complex vitamins, which may reduce cholesterol levels, boost mood and help burn fat.
• Eat an array of colorful fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, blueberries, asparagus, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, oranges and red bell peppers.
3 More Ways to Improve Circulation
1. Stretching. As you ease into a stretch, you’ll feel your muscles relax. This is thanks to an increase in blood flow to the muscles, which may help improve flexibility and muscle performance, improving range of motion and decreasing risk of injury. Increased blood flow also boosts the supply of nutrients to muscle and cartilage and removes waste byproducts from the muscle tissue. To increase blood flow, repeat a series of dynamic stretches (slow, controlled movements) that take you to the limit of your range of motion. Try stretches such as front lunges, arm circles or a wide variety of yoga poses. Set aside 10 minutes a day to stretch, focusing on the major muscle groups (upper body, lower body, abdominals and back). Hold stretches at the first feeling of resistance and breathe deeply throughout.
2. Massage. Treating ourselves to a massage may provide health benefits beyond relaxation: Massage stimulates flow through blood and lymph vessels, allowing blood to move through congested areas. Massage also seems to encourage the body to release serotonin, a chemical that positively affects emotions, and relaxes muscles, ligaments and tendons, releasing nerves and deeper connective tissues. Being in a state of relaxation slows heart and breathing rates, and reduces blood pressure and the production of stress hormones. To improve circulation, talk with your massage therapist. She will likely focus on the limbs, and may consider deep tissue massage.
3. Hydrotherapy. While hydrotherapy may not be a part of our vernacular, this medicinal practice is likely a part of our lives. Hydrotherapy, or the use of water to relieve pain, can be as simple as ice packs and hot baths, or as elaborate as saunas and steams. By using both hot and cold water, hydrotherapy can stimulate our bodies’ circulatory systems—cold water contracts blood vessels and pushes blood away from the surface of the body, while hot water expands blood vessels and draws blood to the surface. Boost circulation with hydrotherapy by alternating applications of hot and cold water with foot soaks, compresses or showers. Use caution: Excessive heat or cold applied directly to the skin may cause pain, drying and tissue damage.
—"3 More Ways to Improve Circulation" by Gina DeBacker