An A to Z of the Circulatory System
Your heart beats more than 100,000 times a day; your blood vessels, if lined up end to end, would wrap twice around the globe. Good circulation is important because the health of every body part depends on your circulatory system. Blockages and bleeds can lead to heart attack, stroke or vascular dementia, or to aches, pains, cramps and ulcers. Often though, there is no sign that your heart and vessels are having a hard time keeping your body supplied with blood, and so it’s good to get a better understanding of your amazing circulatory system.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘motorway’ of the body, the aorta is your body’s biggest blood vessel, measuring about an inch in diameter.(1) Lying on your back, you may see your stomach softly pulsate - this is your abdominal aortic artery in action.
Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood to all tissues; veins carry deoxygenated blood back to the heart. (Veins appear blue even though their blood is actually maroon in colour, because of the way that they reflect and absorb the red and blue wavelengths of visible light(2)). Some 10 billion capillaries, each one tenth the diameter of a human hair, lace all body tissues, connecting arteries to veins.
William Harvey (1578-1657) was the first to describe how blood flowed in a closed circuit within the body, with the heart acting as the pump.
Ours is a heart of two halves.(3) The right side receives blood from the body and propels it to the lungs; the left side receives blood from the lungs and ejects it at high pressure to all body cells. At rest, it takes a minute for your blood to circumnavigate the body; during exercise, as little as ten seconds.
Left on its own, under the pull of gravity, blood would struggle to get back from the feet to the heart. The contraction of leg muscles work like a second heart to squeeze blood back up to the heart, with valves in leg veins acting like closed doors to prevent backflow, aiding upward mobility.
For centuries the teachings of Galen, a surgeon to the gladiators in the Roman Empire, prevailed. He thought that blood ebbed and flowed in sea-like waves from the liver to body organs, where it was consumed. The heart was simply, and falsely, seen as a furnace ‘boiling the blood’.
Your body transports oxygen to every living cell, mostly carrying it bound to haemoglobin in red blood cells. Being so vital to life, one billion molecules of oxygen pack into each red blood cell.
Blood hormone levels vary over time, in particular patterns, with stress hormones peaking each morning, and female reproductive hormones showing a 28-day cycle. Insulin levels also show a daily rhythm, dropping overnight and between meals and beginning to increase when food is seen or smelt, peaking after the meal.
White blood cells provide a line of defence against injury and infection second only to skin.
On both sides of the neck, these veins carry blood back from the head to the heart. Their pulsations can tell doctors how healthy your heart is.(4)
Estimated to have saved more than a billion lives, Dr Karl Landsteiner made blood donation possible through the discovery of blood groups in the early 20th century.(5)
May be an indicator of poor circulation medically diagnosed as Peripheral Arterial Disease, especially if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or you smoke. If you experience aches or cramps in the calf, thigh or buttock while walking, consult your doctor.
Inactivity contributes to over three million deaths worldwide each year(6). It is a known fact that sedentary living is a major risk factor contributing to diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, however in Australia, only 15% of adults met the Physical Activity Guidelines (7). Less sitting and more moving everyone!
Simulating the effect of exercise by artificially activating the calf muscle pump, through electrical impulses delivered to the feet, this emerging technology has been shown to improve circulation and aid exercise.
In much the same way that water pipes become choked with calcium salts, your arteries can become furred up and blocked by fatty plaques; blood clots are another culprit. When this happens in the heart or brain, the result may be angina, heart attack, vascular dementia or stroke.
When the narrowing or blockage is in an extremity, the disease is called PAD, commonly known as Poor Circulation. Symptoms include pain while walking, severe cases can result in gangrene or amputation.
Poor circulation, depending on where it’s worst, can lead to feelings of breathlessness, light-headedness, aches and pains and cold. Erectile dysfunction in men, leg ulcers and even depression can develop, with vascular surgeons calling for more emphasis on mental health for their patients.(8)
A rupture or blockage to a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain causes a stroke. 387,000 Australians suffered a stroke in 2018, according to data from the Australian Institute of Health & Welfare.(9)
In more severe PAD, surgical procedures like an angioplasty (tiny balloon inserted to inflate vessel) or bypass surgery (new path created around blocked artery) may help improve blood flow. If gangrene develops, surgery may be required to remove the limb (amputation). Every three hours in Australia, one person has an arm or leg amputated due to PAD.(10)
Blood absorbs the heat generated by active muscles and redistributes it around the body, keeping all parts warm. In cold weather, blood flow is directed to the brain, and away from the skin, to conserve heat where it’s most needed.(11)
Pressure in your blood vessels helps force nutrient-rich fluid across capillary walls and into tissues. Too high or too low and you could be in trouble, with high blood pressure, for example, leading to strokes and kidney failure (12).
Risk factors for high blood pressure include a sedentary lifestyle, diabetes, smoking and high cholesterol; these are also linked to the poor circulation of peripheral arterial disease.
If your veins are under chronic pressure due to blood pooling in the legs through poor circulation, this can lead to venous disease(13). Your legs may feel tight and heavy and ache; swelling, varicose veins and leg ulcers may result.
Carbon dioxide, the waste made during energy production, is carried by the blood to the lungs to be breathed out. Hyperventilating or excessive breath holding are harmful since abnormal carbon dioxide levels alter the acidity of blood, affecting heart and brain function and causing muscle cramps.(14)
According to a report in Healthline, 150 minutes a week of exercise (20-30minutes a day) can lower your risk of coronary heart disease by 14%.
Muscles, including the heart, strengthen – and even grow more capillaries – when you lead an active lifestyle.
How can you keep yourself young and youthful? A study showed 75-year-olds who exercised regularly year on year to have similar cardiovascular health to a 40-45 year old.(15) Another research validated that regular exercise at a minimum of 150 min/week – a combination of strength and endurance exercise – promotes longevity and slows down aging.(16)
These fascinating fish are tiny and transparent – and can regenerate a new fin a fortnight after amputation. Scientists are studying them to work out how humans might grow new vessels in the quest to treat peripheral arterial disease.(17)
- UF Health (2021) Aorta Anatomy https://m.ufhealth.org/uf-health-aortic-disease-center/aorta-anatomy
- Science World (2015) Is blood really blue? https://www.scienceworld.ca/stories/blood-really-blue/
- Cecconi M, Johnston E, Rhodes A (2006) What role does the right side of the heart play in circulation? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3226127/#__ffn_sectitle
- Roland J (2017) Jugular vein distension (JVD): Causes, Assessment, and More. https://www.healthline.com/health/jvd#causes
- Nobel Prize Outreach AB (2021). Karl Landsteiner Biographical https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1930/landsteiner/biographical/
- WHO The Global Health Observatory https://www.who.int/data/gho/indicator-metadata-registry/imr-details/3416
- Insufficient Physical Activity, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/risk-factors/insufficient-physical-activity/contents/insufficient-physical-activity
- Ramirez J, Grenon M Depression and Peripheral Arterial Disease: A call to action: A call to action. https://vascularnews.com/depression-peripheral-arterial-disease/
- Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, Stroke https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/stroke
- Peripheral Arterial Disease, Heart Research Institute https://www.hri.org.au/health/learn/cardiovascular-disease/peripheral-artery-disease
- Cowan H (2015) How does the body survive in extreme cold weather? https://www.readersdigest.co.uk/health/health-conditions/how-does-the-body-survive-in-extreme-cold-weather
- American Heart Association (2016) How high blood pressure can lead to kidney damage or failure. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/high-blood-pressure/health-threats-from-high-blood-pressure/how-high-blood-pressure-can-lead-to-kidney-damage-or-failure
- Johns Hopkins Medicine (2021) Chronic venous insufficiency https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/chronic-venous-insufficiency
- Johns Hopkins Medicine (2021) Hyperventilation. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/hyperventilation
- Cardiovascular and skeletal muscle health with lifelong exercise https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00174.2018
- Which type of exercise keeps you young? https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30640736/
- Royal Veterinary College (2021) How to grow new blood vessels: the zebrafish as a model to study angiogenesis in development and regeneration. https://www.rvc.ac.uk/research/about/animals-in-research/case-studies/zebrafish-angiogenesis
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