Poor circulation can impact any part of your body, but it's particularly common in the legs and feet. Your arteries transport freshly oxygenated blood from your heart to the rest of your body, and your veins facilitate the flow of deoxygenated blood back to your heart. Health problems can occur during either phase of circulation.
Often, healthy circulation suffers when vascular issues inhibit the flow of blood from your lower extremities to your heart. In simple terms, this means that your blood has trouble flowing against gravity. Once the cells in your feet and legs absorb the nutrients and oxygen from your blood, the deoxygenated blood must flow from your lower legs and feet back to your heart.
Your circulatory system needs to be strong enough to push the blood against gravity. When it's not, or when your veins are damaged, the blood may begin to pool in the lower legs and feet.
In other people, plaque buildup (atherosclerosis) can block arterial blood flow to the lower extremities, causing poor blood circulation. Conditions like peripheral artery disease (PAD) lead to inadequate blood supply to the feet and legs.
In both cases, patients may experience slower blood flow, also known as bad circulation. "Good circulation" means that your blood is moving through your blood vessels at an appropriate pace and volume. The symptoms of poor circulation may include swelling, discoloration in the legs and feet, spider veins, varicose veins, blood clots (including dangerous deep vein blood clots), wounds that don't heal, and venous ulcers.
Ways To Improve Circulation
To start, you could talk to your doctor about the causes of your poor circulation. In some cases, problems with circulation may indicate a more serious medical condition, such as high blood pressure, deep vein thrombosis, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes. Before you implement lifestyle changes to improve circulation, be sure to address any underlying conditions with the help of a physician.
Wear Compression Socks
Compression socks have been shown to produce a measurable improvement in circulation. In a randomized controlled study that measured venous blood flow with and without graduated compression stockings, scientists observed a beneficial effect on lower limb venous outflow and the prevention of venous stasis with compression.
Compression socks and compression stockings work to improve circulation in a number of ways. They begin by applying gentle pressure, reducing the circumference of your veins. This prevents veins’ walls from distending and reduces pressure on the one-way valves within the veins.
Wearing graduated compression socks, like knee-length socks, can reduce the symptoms of (and, in some cases, prevent) vascular conditions. Furthermore, compression therapy helps to reduce swelling in the legs. Graduated compression is unique because the socks exert more pressure at the ankles and less pressure on the calf. This supports the movement of blood against the force of gravity and stops blood from pooling in the feet and lower legs. Altogether, compression socks help the circulatory system move deoxygenated blood more efficiently from the feet to the heart.
While compression socks can aid circulation for people who suffer from vascular problems, inflammation, and swelling, certain circulation problems may contraindicate the use of compression socks. Talk to your doctor before wearing compression socks if you have poor circulation related to issues with arterial function.
Elevate Your Legs with Pillows
Since compression socks are not recommended overnight, you can elevate your legs with a pillow to help improve venous outflow while you sleep. Elevating your legs may also reduce swelling and reduce pressure on your vein walls and valves.
Research shows that stretching your legs can lead to better arterial blood flow. While the exact biological mechanism is unclear, researchers suggest that lower-body stretching may cause muscles to press on the arteries in the thighs and legs, encouraging the body to release chemicals that aid blood flow. As a result, stretching may serve to reduce the chances of getting heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other conditions associated with reduced blood flow.
Exercise training improves the capacity of the blood vessels to dilate in response to exercise or hormones. As a result, arteries are better able to provide oxygen to the muscles when it's needed.
Implementing dietary changes can also reduce swelling and improve circulation in the legs. For example, eating too much sodium can lead to water retention. Water retention can worsen the painful symptoms and contribute to high blood pressure if you’re already struggling with poor leg circulation. In order to reduce water retention from sodium, it's important to cut back on sodium and drink at least half an ounce of water for each pound you weigh each day.
In addition, adequate absorption of vitamin C helps to protect your blood vessel linings. You can get vitamin C from citrus fruits, red pepper, strawberry, broccoli, and several other fruits and vegetables. Food rich in nitrates, such as beets and leafy greens, act as vasodilators.
They help dilate the arterial vessels to allow oxygenated blood to reach your cells more effectively. Fatty fish, like salmon, is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acid. These acids reduce the growth rate of the plaque that blocks blood vessels, and they may reduce inflammation.
Overall, a healthy diet rich in vegetables, whole grains, and fruits can help lower your bad cholesterol. This reduces your risk of type II diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, all of which can negatively influence blood circulation.
Smoking is a habit that can hinder blood circulation all over your body, including in your legs. England's National Health Service reports that within 2 to 12 weeks of quitting smoking, blood circulation appears to improve.
Poor circulation can have many different causes. Check with your doctor to see if an underlying medical condition has impacted your circulation.
For many people, it's possible to improve the blood circulation in the legs by:
- Wearing compression socks
- Elevating the legs
- Exercising and stretching
- Making dietary changes
- Avoiding smoking
Graduated compression stockings | CMAJ
Nitrates (vasodilator) | Texas Heart.org
Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Coronary Heart Disease | Health Encyclopedia - University of Rochester Medical Center
Staying Healthy Leg stretching may improve blood flow and prevent strokes | Harvard Health
The Effect of Graduated Compression Stockings on Lower Limb Venous Haemodynamics | Sage Publications
The Truth About How Much Water You Should Really Drink | Eat + Run | US News
Vascular Adaptation to Exercise in Humans: Role of Hemodynamic Stimuli | NCBI
Vitamin C protects blood vessel lining | VUMC Reporter | Vanderbilt University