You might not think about it as much as you do eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough sleep, but maintaining good circulation is one of the most important building blocks to keeping your health on the rails.
“The circulatory system of the body delivers vital oxygen and nutrients to all of our muscles and organs,” says Vincent Varghese, D.O., a cardiac interventionist at Deborah Heart and Lung Center in New Jersey. “When plaque or arterial blockages develop, normal blood flow is hindered and can lead to devastating effects, such as heart attack, stroke, or even leg amputation [in severe cases].”
The process of plaque build-up is a slow one and usually takes decades, he adds, yet studies have shown the precursors of plaque developing as early as our twenties. A sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy eating, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and a family history of early heart or vascular disease can all contribute to poor circulation.
“The most common symptom of impaired circulation to the legs is claudication,” says Caitlin W. Hicks, M.D., a board-certified vascular surgeon and associate professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. “It’s a condition where you may experience pain in the buttocks or calves when walking that goes away with rest.”
1. Go on regular walks.
Walking can benefit both the arteries and veins. “Contraction of the calf muscles causes venous blood to be pushed back up to the heart,” says Misty Humphries, M.D., a board-certified vascular surgeon and associate professor of vascular surgery in Sacramento, CA. “The arteries dilate when patients walk and improve blood flow all throughout the body.” Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of walking three times per week.
But if walking’s not your thing, any type of sweat session can improve circulation. “When you exercise, your muscles need greater blood flow, which supplies oxygen and other nutrients,” 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.
Shoot for 20 minutes of heart-pumping cardio (think: cycling, elliptical, HIIT) four to five times per week. (Note: If it’s been a while since your last workout, you may want to consider checking in with your doc before starting a new routine).
2. Take more work breaks.
The perks of taking more work breaks is two-fold: It helps you get into the habit of 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,” says Dr. Humphries. “Both of these habits can lead to atherosclerosis (plaque buildup) in the arteries that results in a narrowing of the vessels.” Do your best to take stretch breaks every 15 to 20 minutes, and get-up-and-go breaks from sitting every hour—even if it’s just a power walk around your home.
3. Eat more fruits and veggies.
Besides reducing your sugar and fatty food intake to steer clear of high blood pressure, plaque formation, and diabetes, adding more fruits and veggies to your repertoire leads to more nitrates and other compounds in your diet, says Dr. Patel, which your body then uses to create nitric oxide—a chemical compound we exhale that boosts blood flow by relaxing blood vessels.
Foods that are high in nitric oxide converters include leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale, swiss chard, bok choy, arugula), beets, cauliflower, carrots, broccoli, citrus fruits, watermelon, and pomegranates. The more colorful your plate looks, the better off you will be.
4. Stay hydrated.
“Your blood is about half water, so staying well-hydrated will help keep it moving,” says Dr. Patel. 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.
The easiest way to make sure you’re getting enough fluids is to check your pee: Straw-colored or clear means you’re hydrated—anything darker than that means you need to up your H20 intake.
5. Quit smoking.
Smoking causes a build-up of plaque in your arteries that can ultimately lead to 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.
Quitting smoking slows the process of plaque formation and vessel damage. The process of quitting is different for everyone, but there is medication available through your doctor if you find yourself struggling.
6. Manage your blood pressure.
High blood pressure messes with your circulation by making your heart and blood vessels worker harder and less efficiently. This creates itty bitty tears in the artery walls, which is what gives plaque (from bad cholesterol) the chance to make itself at home. “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.
7. 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. Diabetes also promotes the formation of plaque in the body, increasing your risk of PAD. The fatty deposits narrow the blood vessels (especially in your legs and feet).
“Aim for a hemoglobin A1C less than 6.5% if you have diabetes,” says Dr. Varghese. 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.
8. Wear compression socks.
“Wearing compression socks adds a layer of support to your veins,” says Dr. Humphries. “It helps to prevent the superficial veins that aren’t wrapped in muscle from dilating.” As veins dilate from standing or sitting over long periods of time, they can become varicose veins (twisted, enlarged veins) that cause pain and swelling.
Wear compression socks from morning to evening to steadily squeeze your legs so your veins can move blood more efficiently. They’re available through pharmacies and medical supply stores and even online—prescription-strength are also available if your varicose veins are causing symptoms.
9. Elevate your legs.
Elevating your legs (at or above heart level) improves blood flow to the rest of your body by keeping the blood from pooling in your lower 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.
The most convenient time to elevate your legs would be when you’re watching TV or having a nap—lie down and prop your legs above heart level (a leg elevation pillow can help you comfortably hold the position) for 15 minutes or more at a time.
10. 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. It’s thought green tea relaxes blood vessels so the body can pump blood more easily, but more research is needed to understand its full impact.
11. 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. When you sip those cocktails, your body has to work harder to pump blood and puts additional stress on your veins.
Spread out your alcohol intake as much as possible—and when you do indulge, stay within the recommended daily intake for alcohol, which is two drinks or less for men and one drink or less for women.
12. 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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