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How to improve your vascular health


Photo: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Your circulatory system consists of arteries, capillaries, veins and lymphatics, which all work together to nourish and detoxify the body. Here we will concentrate on your peripheral vascular tree, as opposed to your heart, although the same principles of treatment applies to the entire system, also known as your circulatory system.

Eating nitrate-rich foods greatly helps improve circulation flow by dilating blood vessels and allowing your blood to flow more easily … Nitrate-rich foods include leafy greens like spinach, cabbage, broccoli and collard greens, spirulina, dark chocolate, rhubarb, beets and green herbs such as coriander and basil.

Blood moves through the circulatory system by being pumped out by the left side of heart. Blood leaves the heart filled with oxygen and starts its journey through the arteries. The arteries keep branching off into smaller and smaller tubes, like the branches of a tree, which progressively become thinner and thinner as you move away from the central trunk. These bring oxygen and other nutrients to the cells of the body’s tissues and organs. The smallest tubes are called capillaries. As blood moves through the capillaries, the oxygen, hormones and critical nutrients make their way into all your trillions of cells.

After all their amazing metabolic processes, waste matter from the cells goes into the capillaries and makes their way into the veins in an almost reverse order, where the branches become progressively larger and larger until they find themselves back into the right side of the heart. Veins are thin-walled structures inside of which a set of valves keeps blood in the body flowing in one direction and against gravity back towards the heart. Arteries have no valves.

From the right side of the heart the blood moves through the respiratory system and pulmonary tree to remove carbon dioxide and wastes and gain nutrients and oxygen before reaching once again, the left heart.

The vascular system also works closely with your digestive system and your kidneys to distribute nutrients and eliminate waste from your body.

Signs of problems

Arterial tree

If your arterial blood flow is sluggish, important cells and nutrients cannot reach the areas that need them the most. You may experience a variety of symptoms related to this as well as complications of this reduced flow, which is called peripheral artery disease (PAD) — a form of atherosclerosis. In the lower limbs, they include cramps and pain on walking which is relieved when you rest (intermittent claudication), numbness and tingling and coolness in your extremities. The worst case of arterial insufficiency may result in ischemia, meaning tissue damage caused by lack of blood and oxygen, and eventual gangrene.

Raynaud’s disease is a medical condition resulting in discoloration of the fingers and/or the toes after exposure to changes in temperature (cold or hot) or emotional events. Skin discoloration occurs because an abnormal spasm of the blood vessels causes a diminished blood supply to the local tissues. Women are more likely to develop Raynaud’s disease as well as people living in colder climates.

Venous tree

If your venous system is sluggish and the blood does not flow easily back towards the heart or you have incompetent valves in your veins, you will experience symptoms of venous disease such as swelling, varicose veins and thrombophlebitis or even deep vein thrombosis (DVT). In chronic venous disease (CVD) or insufficiency, over time, a brown-like discolouration of your lower legs and ankles may occur due to the blood pooling in the veins, straining the walls of the vein.

Impaired flow, whether arterial or venous, can also lead to ulceration of the extremities, particularly the legs, and difficulties in wound healing. Either system can also be involved in thrombosis and/or embolus, whereby a clot may travel and block other organs as is seen in pulmonary embolism from leg DVT or arterial emboli, leading to strokes or gangrene of organs or limbs.

Who is most at risk of poor circulation and vascular disease?

  • Smokers
  • Diabetics
  • People who are overweight
  • Heavy drinkers
  • People who have poor diets
  • People who have high blood pressure
  • People who have high cholesterol

Diet and your vascular tree

A healthy diet is fairly common sense. A low-fat, alkaline diet, which reduces inflammation, includes a wide range of foods such as fresh organic fruit and vegetables, legumes such as lentils and kidney beans, all varieties of bread, pasta and rice with oil-free sauces, grilled or steamed fish and low-fat milk or non-dairy milk.

Garlic is well reputed to improve blood flow. Raw garlic makes your blood thinner, specifically, its sulphur compounds, which include allicin, can increase tissue blood flow and lower blood pressure by relaxing your blood vessels.

Eating nitrate-rich foods greatly helps improve circulation flow by dilating blood vessels and allowing your blood to flow more easily. The nitrates, which your body converts into nitric oxide, relaxes blood vessels (vasodilator) and increases blood flow to muscle tissue, also having an effect on athletic performance, brain function and heart health as well as erectile function. As a vasodilator, nitric oxide signals the blood vessels to relax, allowing them to expand. This effect allows blood, nutrients and oxygen to flow freely to every vital organ, extremities and tissues of your body. Nitric oxide keeps your blood pressure level within a normal range by also preventing clots and plaque from forming. The best way to boost your nitric oxide levels is through nitrate-rich plants and plant protein. Nitrate-rich foods include leafy greens like spinach, cabbage, broccoli and collard greens, spirulina, dark chocolate, rhubarb, beets and green herbs such as coriander and basil.

Just 20 to 30 minutes of brisk walking a day is enough to get your blood moving and pumping throughout your system.

A semi-essential amino acid called L-arginine is thought to be at the heart of your circulatory health. It is the precursor to nitric oxide and is needed by the lining in your vessels (endothelium) to create nitric oxide. The good news is your body naturally produces L-arginine but research suggests that as someone ages, his or her ability to produce enough nitric oxide in the artery linings (endothelium) decreases. Ways to enhance your production of L-arginine include consuming the following: eggs, cultured yoghurt, kefir, oily fish, sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, seaweed and sea vegetables and spirulina as well as brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds and coconut.

Cinnamon has excellent properties that help the circulatory system. It has an anti-clotting effect on the blood. Cinnamaldehyde (also called cinnamic aldehyde) has been well-researched for its effects on blood platelets. The cinnamaldehyde in cinnamon helps prevent unwanted clumping of blood platelets by inhibiting the release of an inflammatory fatty acid called arachidonic acid from platelet membranes and reducing the formation of an inflammatory messaging molecule called thromboxane A2. Cinnamon’s ability to lower the release of arachidonic acid from cell membranes also puts it in the category of an “anti-inflammatory” food, which can be helpful in lessening inflammation and reducing the incidence of deep vein thrombosis.

Cayenne pepper gets its spicy flavour from a phytochemical called capsaicin. Capsaicin promotes blood flow to tissues by lowering blood pressure and stimulating the release of nitric oxide and other vasodilators. Vasodilators allow blood to flow more easily through your veins and arteries by relaxing the tiny muscles found in blood vessel walls. You have probably noted that they are often included in pain-relieving creams because they encourage blood flow to the affected area.

Top things to do for vascular health

  • Quit smoking
  • Keep well hydrated
  • Eat healthy whole foods
  • Do regular exercise
  • Reduce stress
  • Avoid trans fats
  • Take supplements
  • Take herbal medicine
  • Have massages

Exercise and your vascular tree

Circulation, a primary function of the circulatory system, delivers oxygen and nutrients via blood to each of your body’s 50 trillion cells while also removing all toxins. If you were to lie out the entire intricate network of arteries, capillaries and veins in one adult, end-to-end, they would stretch about a staggering 97,000 kilometres. It clearly makes sense that being physically active has a massive impact on circulatory health. Just 20 to 30 minutes of brisk walking a day is enough to get your blood moving and pumping throughout your system. Yoga and tai chi also work very effectively to increase circulation and improve the flow of oxygen-rich blood to all vital organs.

Supplements and herbal medicines

Vitamin B — specifically vitamin B3, known as niacin, serves to strengthen blood vessels and increase blood flow as well as increasing the production of red blood cells and helps prevent hardening of the arteries.

Magnesium — is an essential mineral for cardiovascular health as well as the prevention of thrombotic states.

Vitamin C — studies have shown that the serum concentration of vitamin C is low in patients with vascular disease.

Black seed — Nigella sativa (black seed or black cumin), which belongs to the Ranunculacea family, is an annual herb with many pharmacological properties. Among its many active constituents, thymoquinone is the most abundant constituent of the volatile oil of Nigella sativa (N. sativa) seeds, and it is the constituent to which most properties of this herb are attributed. In a 2013 double-blind, randomised study, 70 healthy volunteers aged 34 to 63 years with systolic blood pressure (BP) from 110 to 140 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure from 60 to 90 mmHg were randomly allocated to receive 2.5 mL N. sativa oil or placebo two times a day for eight weeks. The results showed that in the N. sativa oil-treated group, the systolic and diastolic BPs decreased significantly compared with baseline and the placebo group at the endpoint.

Hawthorn — A member of the rose family, hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is a thorny, flowering tree or shrub native to temperate regions of Europe, North America and northern Asia. Though the tiny sweet red berries (“haws”) are used in jams, jellies, candies and wines, all parts of the plant — the leaves, flowers, berries, stems, and even the bark — have long been used in herbal medicine. It is very well known for its cardiovascular benefits including reducing blood pressure, treating irregular rhythms of the heart and improving coronary and extremity blood flow. It is reputed to reduce the build-up of plaque and cholesterol in the arteries.

Ginkgo — is well known to enhance memory and cognitive performance by acting as a circulatory stimulant, enhancing blood flow to the brain and other parts of the body. It is a potent antioxidant that helps to protect important organs in our body and most importantly our blood vessels. These incredible tree leaves are especially noted for increasing circulation to the eyes, helping to prevent or treat eye disorders, such as macular degeneration. Ginkgo is also considered a venotonic, which helps to maintain the structure and integrity of our veins and improves the flow of blood within them.

Grapeseed extract — is a popular herb commonly taken for varicose veins and venous insufficiency. Grapeseed extract, due to its potent antioxidant activity, helps to reduce inflammation, prevent blood clots and improve the function of our blood vessels. It can be used in people with retinal damage, high cholesterol and to speed up the repair of injuries and wounds.

Butcher’s broom — although this may not be as well recognised as ginkgo or garlic it is equally effective and actually one of the top herbs known to significantly improve circulation. The active ingredient is ruscogenin, which improves venous tone, decreasing blood pooling in the process and reducing the incidence of vein thrombosis.

Prickly ash — may be used in a way that is similar to cayenne and it is used for all circulatory disorders including arterial disease, varicose veins and varicose ulcers.

Horse chestnut seed — it is an excellent herb for the treatment of chronic venous insufficiency. It can reduce some symptoms of poor blood circulation such as varicose veins, pain and tiredness, swelling in the legs, itching and water retention.

Gotu kola — plays two important roles in the circulatory system. It can protect and strengthen the walls of blood vessels and capillaries, as well as stimulating the flow of blood, which increases oxygenation in different parts of the body and important organ systems.

Nattokinase — is an enzyme (a protein that speeds up reactions in the body) that is extracted from a popular Japanese food called natto. Natto is boiled soybeans that have been fermented with a type of bacteria and has been used as a folk remedy for diseases of the heart and blood vessels for hundreds of years. It reduces the amount of fibrin in your blood — fibrin being one of the substances necessary for clotting to occur. Nattokinase makes your blood thinner and reduces the incidence of clotting as well as dissolving clots. Beware – you should never take nattokinase if you are on prescription medication to thin your blood such as Warfarin or some of the NOACS as this may lead to excessive or internal bleeding.

Co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10) — is a strong antioxidant that can help protect arteries and is well known for its effects on heart health. Research has shown that CoQ10 can promote the extraction of oxidised cholesterol from arterial walls and help in clearing blockages.


Not only is massage a great way to relax but the pushing, kneading and pulling all help increase blood flow and circulation. By squeezing and kneading a muscle, the massage therapist helps release lactic acid and improves the circulation of lymph with the consequent removal of waster products. Deep tissue massage, Swedish massage as well as manual lymphatic drainage greatly assist in improving the circulation.

It is always important to be checked by your specialist, particularly if you have increasing symptoms of arterial or venous insufficiency. The disease becomes irreversible when tissue death occurs from complete lack of blood supply or flow which then becomes a medical or surgical emergency. The good news is that vascular disease is reversible by changing your lifestyle habits and adopting good health practices as described above. For a simple start, a healthy alkaline food-rich diet, good healthy hydration and regular exercise will immediately result in a healthier vascular tree. Adding appropriate supplements and reducing stress will further lower the overall inflammation in the body and help to clear your vessels, leading to enhanced oxygen and nutrient-rich blood flow and a healthier you.


Valerie Malka

Dr Valerie Malka is a trauma and general surgeon who has worked extensively for patient safety and ethics in healthcare. Valerie has worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross and holds a Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance and a Masters in international public health as well as journalism. She works as a freelance health and wellbeing writer and has a great passion for natural healthcare. She is working on revolutionising the modern medical model by bringing into the hospital system integrative and natural health practices. Valerie is also a huge advocate for animal rights and environmental protection.