It probably comes as no surprise that smoking is bad for the circulation, given its harmful effects on other parts of the body. Tobacco harms the circulation in many ways, including:
- Increasing the pressure that blood puts on the walls of arteries when it is pumped through the body (i.e. raising blood pressure)
- Making the heart beat faster, which increases the strain on it
- Narrowing blood vessels in the skin, so blood can’t flow as easily
- Causing less oxygen to be carried in the blood than normal
- Making blood ‘stickier’ and this makes it unable to flow as well
- Damaging the lining of arteries, making them more likely to clog up with fatty substances (atherosclerosis)
- Reducing blood flow to the fingers and toes (i.e. the parts of the body furthest away from the heart)
The effects of alcohol on the circulation are less clear than for smoking:
- In moderate amounts, alcohol can cause blood vessels to become wider, which improves the circulation by enabling the blood to flow more easily
- The findings of one scientific study pointed to a slight benefit after one alcoholic drink, whereas two or more caused unwanted effects on circulation
- The effects of alcohol vary widely though, according to a person’s gender, general health and size
It’s important to keep the arteries clear, as these are the tubes that carry oxygen-rich blood away from the heart and to the rest of the body. An unhealthy diet can lead to the arteries becoming clogged up with fatty substances – a condition called ‘atherosclerosis’. Affected arteries narrow and harden, which stops blood from flowing through them as well as it normally would. As a result, some parts of the body may not be able to get the blood flow needed to work properly, which can cause serious health problems, such as a heart attack.
Circulation friendly diet
As explained in ‘What is circulation’, physical movement of the body
is very important for helping to keep blood flowing through the veins, particularly in the legs. As we walk for example, muscles in the lower legs and feet operate like a pump, pushing blood back up to the heart, like squeezing liquid through a tube. This action of the muscles helps to maintain good circulation.
If we don’t move for a prolonged period of time (especially if we are sitting down), this can lead to pooling of blood in the legs, which in turn can cause swelling, stiffness and discomfort. Lack of movement is also one of the things that can cause blood to form sticky little lumps, called ‘blood clots’. If a blood clot forms in a vein located deep within the body, it is called a ‘deep vein thrombosis’ – ‘DVT’ for short.
Veins within leg muscles are the most common place for a DVT to form. You may well have heard about people developing a DVT in their leg as a result of being seated for a long time, on an airline flight for example. As DVTs are a direct result of poor circulation and can be very dangerous, regular movement to keep leg muscles working and thus blood flowing is a key part of DVT prevention.
A wide range of medical conditions can affect circulation. These include:
Diabetes is a complex condition that can affect many parts of the body. This can include poor circulation and reduced feeling in the feet, which can lead to foot sores called ‘ulcers’. People with diabetes are more likely to be admitted to hospital with a foot ulcer than with any other complication of diabetes. Diabetes may also harm the circulation by contributing to the development of blocked arteries (‘atherosclerosis’). [link to ‘Atherosclerosis’ section]
High blood pressure
High blood pressure – also called ‘hypertension’ – is a condition in which blood being pumped through the body places too much pressure on the walls of arteries. The condition is often linked with blocked arteries (atherosclerosis), and with a higher than normal level of a fatty substance called ‘cholesterol’ in the blood. Cholesterol is mainly made by the body, but it is also found in some foods (e.g. egg yolks).
High blood pressure is a problem because it can damage arteries, tearing their walls and providing a ‘roughed up’ area that provides a perfect base for cholesterol to be laid down and a blockage to develop. Also, damaged arteries may not be able to deliver enough blood to the organs (e.g. kidneys). Over time, this lack of blood flow can cause affected organs to be severely damaged.
This is a condition in which fatty substances (often from an unhealthy diet) are laid down in the arteries. These cause affected arteries to become narrower and harden, thus stopping blood from flowing through them as freely as it otherwise would. Atherosclerosis is a serious concern, because it increases the likelihood of developing a range of conditions involving reduced blood flow, including:
- Heart attack (sudden damage to the heart due to lack of blood)
- Stroke (sudden damage to the brain due to lack of blood)
This is a general term used to describe a range of disorders affecting the heart and blood vessels. As you might imagine, if the heart and/or blood vessels aren’t working as well as they should, it follows that the circulation will be affected too.
Various forms of heart disease can lead to circulation problems, which often affect the hands and feet in particular.
You may also see this called ‘Raynaud’s disease’. It is a condition that causes blood vessels to narrow, thus preventing normal blood flow. An ‘attack’ can last from several minutes to several hours, with the fingers and toes being the most commonly affected areas. Other parts of the body can be affected too though, such as the ears and nose.
The main symptoms are changes to skin colour in the affected area, which usually occur in three stages:
- Stage one - The affected area turns white because blood supply is restricted.
- Stage two - The affected area turns blue due to lack of oxygen (the body part can feel cold and numb).
- Stage three - The affected area turns red as blood returns at a higher rate than normal (there may be a tingling or throbbing sensation, together with some swelling).
These symptoms gradually disappear as the flow of blood returns to normal.