Good circulation is essential for optimal health. In addition to ensuring delivery of oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to your brain, muscles, nerves, and tissues and organs throughout your body, robust blood flow also reduces stress on your heart.
Healthy circulation depends on a well-functioning heart plus flexible, unobstructed arteries, veins, and capillaries and thin, free-flowing blood. Unfortunately, circulation problems are quite common.
Damage to the endothelial cells lining the inner surfaces of the blood vessels reduces their capacity to produce and respond to nitric oxide (NO), a vasodilator that signals the arteries to relax, expand, and increase blood flow as needed. When this action is blunted, blood flow is restricted and blood pressure increases.
Endothelial damage also sets the stage for plaque buildup, which narrows the arteries and further impairs circulation. An increase in blood viscosity—the relative thickness or “stickiness” of the blood—creates greater resistance and decreases blood flow as well.
Natural Approaches to Better Blood Flow
So, what can you do to maintain healthy, flexible arteries and thin, fluid blood that courses through your blood vessels? Getting plenty of exercise, controlling your weight, avoiding smoking, and staying well-hydrated all help to ensure good circulation. What you eat also matters.
For more than 25 years, I have recommended the Pan-Asian Modified Mediterranean (PAMM) diet for my patients with circulatory problems and other cardiovascular disorders. The PAMM diet is based on the traditional diets of areas of the world that are known for robust health, longevity, and low rates of heart disease. Plus, all the PAMM diet’s components—low-glycemic, high-fiber vegetables, beans, and whole grains; nuts and seeds; olive oil and other healthy fats; high-quality protein like fish; and fruit—are tasty, widely available, and easy to prepare.
In addition to the PAMM diet, a few specific foods deserve special mention for their ability to enhance blood flow. If you are concerned about your circulation, I suggest making them a regular part of your diet.
Best Foods to Improve Circulation
Beets help with circulation because of their nitrate content. Nitrates are converted in the body into nitric oxide, which, as discussed above, relaxes the arteries, improves blood flow, and lowers blood pressure. In a study by British researchers, participants who drank 16 ounces of beet juice had a 10 mmHg drop in their blood pressure! Beets are one of those foods that you either love or you hate. I suggest learning to love them because your cardiovascular system sure does.
Spinach, lettuce, arugula, Chinese cabbage, and parsley are also rich in nitrates. Just a cup a day of these raw greens has been shown to reduce blood pressure. (Cooking cuts nitrate content in half.) Plus, these and other leafy greens, including kale, collards, turnip and mustard greens, and Swiss chard, are good sources of vitamin K1, which is vital for our blood coagulation process.
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts and seeds support healthy circulation thanks to their high levels of magnesium and L-arginine. Magnesium helps to relax the smooth muscles in the arteries and maintain vascular tone, and L-arginine is an amino acid that is converted into nitric oxide. Both nutrients help to dilate the blood vessels and improve blood flow and blood pressure. I cannot overemphasize the importance of magnesium and L-arginine for vascular health, and many people don’t get enough of them in their diet.
Salmon & Other Cold-Water Fish
Omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in wild-caught salmon, sardines, cod, and other cold-water fish, have many cardiovascular benefits. One way fish oil helps blood circulation is by reducing platelet aggregation, or the tendency of platelets to clump together and form clots that could impede blood flow. In addition, omega-3s curb inflammation, which can damage the arteries and contribute to all manner of cardiovascular problems. Aim for two to three servings a week.
Berries are one of nature’s richest sources of polyphenols. This family of phytonutrients has powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that help to keep your blood vessels flexible and healthy. Studies have shown that individuals who ate berries several times a week had lower blood pressure and a significant reduction in the risk of heart attack. Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, black currants, and elderberries are particularly abundant in these protective phytonutrients. Other polyphenol-rich foods with proven benefits for blood circulation are dark chocolate, pomegranates, and green tea.
Spices for Circulation
- Garlic has a long history of use as a therapy for cardiovascular problems, and its benefits have also been demonstrated in scores of scientific studies. It is one of my favorite natural treatments for high blood pressure and poor circulation. In fact, I recommend eating as much garlic as you—and your family—can tolerate!
- Turmeric, the bright yellow spice in mustard and curry powder, contains curcumin, which is an exceptionally potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Turmeric increases blood flow by reducing platelet aggregation, stimulating NO activity, and enhancing arterial health.
- Ginger may be best known for reducing nausea and vomiting, but this natural anti-inflammatory, vasodilator, and blood thinner is also great for improving blood flow.
- Cayenne and other chili peppers get their burn from capsaicin, a phytonutrient that enhances blood flow and reduces blood pressure by triggering the release of NO.
Check out my video for tips on cooking with these spices. These health-enhancing condiments are also available in supplement form. Unless you’re a hard-core spicy food lover, you may want to use capsules of cayenne pepper for blood circulation. The same goes for garlic, which is available in odor-free formulations.
Foods to Avoid for Good Circulation
Salt restriction is a standard recommendation for patients with hypertension and circulation problems, but sodium is actually an essential nutrient for heart health. Although you don’t need to go super low, do be mindful of hidden sodium in prepared foods like canned soup, frozen meals, snack items, and restaurant fare. A good daily intake is around 2.8 grams of sodium.
Sugar is the real villain. All kinds of sugar and other fast-burning, high-glycemic carbohydrates cause a spike in blood sugar followed by a rise in insulin that damages the endothelial lining of the blood vessels. Sugar is also pro-inflammatory, plus it contributes to weight gain, insulin resistance, and diabetes—all risk factors for arterial damage and impaired circulation.
I’ll close with a comment on alcohol. The myth that alcohol is good for your heart and vascular system is just that: a myth. Excessive alcohol, including occasional binge drinking, is associated with elevated blood pressure, endothelial dysfunction, and platelet activation. If you do consume alcohol, limit your intake to no more than three or four drinks a week.