co-written by Rick Olazabal, BSc, BN
Often we refer to swollen feet and cold hands as “poor circulation”, but what exactly does this mean?
Is our heart not pumping blood properly? Are our lungs not absorbing enough oxygen? Is that oxygen not being carried to the organs and tissues that require it? Is the blood thicker and thus slower? Are only our arms and legs affected by “poor circulation”?
What are symptoms of a poor circulatory system?
The role of the circulatory system is to bring oxygen, nutrients and many other important factors to distant part of the body, while removing toxins in return. We are all too familiar with the role of red blood cells and the importance of oxygen.
The range of symptoms are broad, from simply cold hands and tingling toes, to a painful headache, loss of vision, chest pain, shortness of breath.
- When oxygen does not reach tissue – or if gas and/or nutrient exchange is compromised – the cells die; these cells can be nerve cells, organ cells, or any kind of tissue cells.
- When nerve cells are damaged by this process the brain cannot receive the proper signals, so you may experience pain, numbness, tingling, and even cramping.
- Similarly, if muscle cells are damaged, pain ensues – think of a heart attack; the heart is not receiving enough oxygen and the heart muscles dies.
- When blood flow to the brain is compromised, the person may faint, but if the blood vessels lose their integrity they may balloon (causes an aneurysm), or they may rupture (as in a hemorrhagic stroke).
- When veins are compromised, blood may not flow properly and they clump together (these clots are called thrombi) and can lead to embolism, which are often fatal.
What are the causes?
Poor circulation can be due to a variety of different things.
- Starting with lifestyle factors, a sedentary life is a primary factor. People leading sedentary lives are often obese and suffer from diabetes, which in part, speeds up and worsens poor circulation (as it leads to additional injury of nerve cells and small blood vessels).
- People who smoke compromise the function of their lungs, thus effectively reducing the capacity for gas exchange (think of the lung standing complications of smoking, e.g. emphysema, COPD).
- A poor diet high in processed foods and “bad” fats add additional injury to your blood vessels by means of fatty depositions.
- Flying on an airplane can precipitate poor circulation due to sitting for too long—and in the worst of cases this can even trigger the dislodging of blood clots that cause pulmonary embolisms.
- Finally—though not the last thing—other conditions that affect the nervous system (e.g. B12 deficiency, multiple sclerosis) will present with the same symptoms of “poor circulation”.
What can be done to help:
Seeking medical attention is always the first step. If the symptoms are sudden and severe you should not waste any time. Many lives are lost because not many of us are able to recognize subtle symptoms early enough (e.g. stroke). On the other hand, if the conditions is chronic (e.g. diabetes, obesity, etc.), we tend to ignore preventative methods.
Treating the root cause will always help you reap the most benefit. To improve blood flow you should engage in activities that require movement. Aerobic exercise like going for a walk for 30 minutes a day is enough. Other lifestyle factors like smoking and diet can seriously affect your circulation and they must be addressed effectively.
There is no magic pill—I know we all wish for one!—but there are “natural” substances known to enhance blood flow, while others may help reduce damage to your blood vessels. Among these substances, Ginkgo biloba is a popular one, as it has been shown to increase circulation in the small blood vessels of the brain.
Horse chestnut and witch hazel may help increase the integrity of your veins, especially in those individuals who stand on their feet for long hours. As always, consult with a licensed naturopathic doctor first, and stay away from such substances if you are already taking blood thinners and/or over the counter medication (e.g. aspirin) that can interfere.