By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
The heart truly is the most amazing organ in the body. I mean, just think about it—if your average heart rate is 75 beats per minute, your heart beats roughly 4,500 times an hour…108,000 times a day…and more than 39 million times in a year.
Live to be 80, and you’re talking about more than 3 trillion contractions.
I don’t know about you, but when I think about how much work that is, the first thing that comes to my mind is, “How can I make that easier for my heart?!?”
One way, obviously, is to take as good care of your heart as possible. Another is to make sure your circulation is in good shape.
Three-Pronged Strategy to Improve Circulation
When we talk about circulation, we’re talking about blood flow through the arteries and veins. The easier it is, the less wear and tear there is on the heart, and the better your health will tend to be. Good blood flow means your tissues are better nourished so wounds heal faster, nerves are healthier, muscles are stronger, and your overall energy level is higher.
How can you improve circulation? I like to address the problem on three fronts—
- Reducing inflammation, which if unchecked leads to plaque buildup and narrowing of the arteries
- Reducing blood viscosity, or how thick and sticky your blood is; blood should flow like red wine, not ketchup
- Supporting healthy arterial function, which means making sure your arteries stay flexible and can dilate and contract as needed (this helps keep blood pressure down)
If you can do all three of these things, your entire cardiovascular system benefits!
Not surprisingly, food is one of the best tools we have for improving circulation. Some foods press all of the right buttons, while others press the wrong ones. Here’s a look at my best and worst picks for improving your blood flow…
The Best Foods for Improving Circulation
Salmon, cod, mackerel and other cold-water fish are rich in omega-3 fats—the healthiest kind of fats for the heart and circulatory system. Not only do omega-3s help reduce inflammation, but they help reduce the “stickiness” of platelets in the blood. This has the effect of thinning the blood so it flows more easily.
Fish is a major part of my Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean (PAMM) diet, and I try to eat it at least 2–3 times a week. When possible, buy fish that’s “wild caught” and not “farm raised.” Farm-raised fish often are fed GMO food, which you don’t want to be exposed to.
There are two nutrients in nuts that make them a great one-two punch for improving circulation: magnesium and L-arginine. Magnesium helps arteries relax so they can expand and contract, and L-arginine is used to produce nitric oxide, a compound that also helps arteries dilate.
With lots of healthy fat and protein, nuts are fantastic snacks when you need to tide yourself over for a while. Hearty and filling, they are packed with nutrition. And like one of my other favorite foods – olive oil, mixed nuts eaten with a Mediterranean-type diet have been shown to reduce risk of cardiovascular events and diabetes. What a win-win!
My only caveat with nuts is to avoid salted (even “lightly salted”) varieties; as I mention below, salty foods can raise blood pressure.
I put oranges on this list because they’re high in vitamin C, which has terrific benefits for the circulatory system—particularly the thousands of miles of tiny capillaries that carry blood from the arteries directly to cells. Vitamin C is essential for the formation of collagen, which is a primary building material for creating and maintaining this “microcirculation.” It’s also another potent antioxidant.
If you’re not a big fan of oranges, you can still get vitamin C from a lot of other foods. Lemons, bell peppers, broccoli, pineapple, and strawberries (to name a few) will all give you the same benefits.
Garlic has been one of my go-to solutions for lowering blood pressure and improving circulation for almost as long as I’ve been a doctor. I used to tell my patients to eat as much of it as they (or their spouses) could stand!
Studies dating back decades have linked garlic with lower blood pressure, and it’s believed that happens because a key component of garlic, allicin, helps arteries dilate. The only issue is that allicin is quickly degraded by heat—so if you want to maximize this benefit, you’ll have to eat it raw. If you must cook it, use low heat and try not to have it in the pan any longer than necessary.
This traditional Japanese dish is a cheese-like food made from fermented soybeans, and it’s rich in a blood-thinning nutrient called nattokinase. Nattokinase reduces the amount of fibrin in your blood—fibrin being one of the substances necessary for clotting to occur. The less of it you have, the less “sticky” your blood is.
There’s one extremely important caveat with natto: you should never eat it if you take the prescription blood thinner Coumadin (warfarin). Coumadin also reduces fibrin levels, and mixing the two could thin the blood too much, which could lead to internal bleeding.
Beets help improve circulation because they’re rich in nitrate. In the body, nitrate is converted into nitric oxide—which as I mentioned earlier, helps arteries dilate.
Beets are also very nourishing to the body. They are full of health-supporting antioxidants, vitamins (A, C, and K and folate), and minerals like potassium, copper, and manganese. And the greens offer lots of phytochemicals such as lutein and zeazanthin.
This sweet treat is full of nutrients that improve circulation and blood flow—specifically, flavonoids. Flavonoids are potent antioxidants, which means they help stop free radical activity and prevent inflammation from taking hold.
Just be sure to stick with dark chocolate, and the higher the percentage of cacao, the better. Just remember to practice moderation, and limit yourself to 1 or 2 small pieces.
The Worst Foods for Circulation
Sometimes I feel like a broken record when I talk about the dangers of sugar—but poor circulation is a perfect example of why you should avoid it like the plague.
Eating too much sugar causes the body to release high amounts of insulin, which triggers inflammation. Worse, though, is that sugar is a major player in the development of type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes is a circulation killer because chronically high levels of glucose in the blood coat arteries and veins, making them progressively more brittle and less able to function properly. This is why so many people with diabetes develop circulation-related complications.
The easiest way to cut down on sugar is by cutting high-glycemic carbohydrates out of your diet. In addition, be on the lookout for “hidden sugar” lurking in places you might not expect it to be. Salad dressings, barbecue sauce, and other processed foods are notorious this way.
A few years ago, the FDA adopted a rule banning trans fats and set this year (2018) as the deadline for getting this dangerous fat out of our food. But even with this regulation, you’re not entirely in the clear. If you cook with oil, trans fats can be created under high heat (frying), plus there’s always a chance that food processing can create them.
The solution? Eat only organic whole foods and sauté instead of fry. And never, ever deep fry!
A lot of people associate salt with high blood pressure and circulation issues, but that’s only true up to a point.
Sodium, half of the chemical structure of salt, is essential for good heart health. However, beyond a certain amount, it can be risky because it causes you to retain water. The more water in your system, the greater your blood volume and the higher your blood pressure. I’ve actually seen patients in hypertensive crisis because they ate too much ham or too many pickles.
One of the issues with salt is the same as with sugar—it’s “hidden” in a lot of processed foods. Again, avoid them if you can. But don’t avoid salt altogether, either. Your body needs it.
Overall, the best rule of thumb for improving circulation is this: If it’s good for your heart, it’s good for your arteries and veins, too. Combine these food tips with a complete anti-inflammatory diet like PAMM, stress reduction, regular exercise, less exposure to toxins, and a few well-chosen nutritional supplements, and you’ll be well on your way to better health.
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- Ding EL, et al. Chocolate and Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2006;3:2.
- Estruch R, et al. Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet. N Engl J Med, 2013; 368:1279-1290.
- The Franklin Institute. Blood Vessels. Accessed January 7, 2018.
- Kromhout D, et al. Fish oil and omega-3 fatty acids in cardiovascular disease: do they really work? Eur Heart J. 2012 Feb; 33(4): 436–443.
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- Ludovici V, et al. Cocoa, blood pressure, and vascular function. Front Nutr. 2017;4:36.
- Tavernise, S. F.D.A. Sets 2018 Deadline to Rid Foods of Trans Fats. New York Times. 16 Jun 2015. Accessed January 8, 2018.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. Background: U.S. Sugar Production. Accessed January 7, 2018.
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