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Circulation: everything you need to know

Article written by Karen Evennett

Date published 04 October 2023

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What is the circulatory system, what can go wrong with it, and what can you do to help? Karen Evennett investigates.

🕒 5 min read

Varicose veins, difficulty concentrating, hair loss, weak nails… many of the conditions we associate with ageing are potential warning signs that something could be wrong with your circulatory system. You may notice that you feel colder than usual, or you're lacking your normal get-up-and-go. The common denominator could be restricted blood flow – your blood is not circulating as well as it should.

Vascular and cardiovascular disease

Vascular disease is the umbrella term for any condition affecting your circulatory system – a network of over 60,000 miles of blood vessels. Vascular disease is among the leading causes of death and disability in Ireland, most commonly impacting the arteries of the heart, brain and legs.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) encompasses conditions that affect the circulatory system, the heart, or both, and includes high blood pressure, stroke and vascular dementia.

Symptoms can include:

  • Chest pain
  • Breathlessness
  • Heart palpitations, or a heartbeat that is either very fast or very slow
  • Light-headedness, dizziness, or faintness
  • Pain, weakness or numb legs and/or arms
  • Swollen limbs
  • Fatigue

Circulation explained

Your heart is a pump that beats 60 to 100 times every minute, with each of these beats sending oxygen-rich blood to every cell in your body.

Arteries carry your blood on a one-way system from your heart. Veins return the deoxygenated blood back to the heart, collecting fresh oxygen from your lungs on the way so the process can start again.

Stretched out and put together end to end, your entire network of blood vessels, including the billions of tiny capillaries, would circle the Earth several times. A blockage or narrowing anywhere along this vast route can be a problem.

Circulatory symptoms

Poor blood flow to the brain can cause difficulties with your memory. Poor supply to your extremities can result in feelings of weakness and numbness in your hands and feet. And, when poor circulation interferes with your kidneys, it can cause your hands and feet to swell.

Varicose veins are the result of weakened valves causing blood and pressure to build up so the veins twist and swell.

Lack of nutrients reaching your skin, hair and nails could also be due to poor circulation.

Constipation, erectile dysfunction, a weakened immune system and painful leg cramps are also reasons to check out your circulation, while angina – a tight feeling across your chest – is a sign of poor blood flow to your heart.

Ischemia is the name given to the condition that means your tissues aren't getting enough blood or oxygen. It can happen just about anywhere. In your heart, it may lead to a heart attack. In your brain, it may trigger a stroke.

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Circulation risk factors

Healthy blood flow is essential to keeping your cardiovascular system strong. You may not have symptoms to warn you of a problem, but various conditions can increase your risk of a problem with blood flow. These include having (or a history of):

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • A history of cardiovascular disease
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Cancer
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • A renal condition other than a kidney or urinary tract infection
  • Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis
  • A high platelet count

Being overweight and certain lifestyle factors also increase your risk.  These include:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Poor diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • High stress levels
  • A sedentary lifestyle

Excess platelets

Platelets in your blood play an essential role in clumping together at the site of a wound in order to stem bleeding. However, in excess, they can cause harmful blood clots contributing to atherosclerosis – the thickening or hardening of arteries – which leads to coronary heart disease.

Cholesterol deposits

Atherosclerosis is caused by a build-up of plaque – made up of fatty deposits – in the lining of an artery. Research has found that LDL cholesterol (so-called 'bad cholesterol') attaches to a protein on the platelet surface called CD36. This makes the platelets stickier than normal, causing them to release chemicals that create inflammation and damage blood vessel walls. Research at Leeds University has been looking into how this process plays out.

Looking after your vascular health

A healthy lifestyle will help to improve your circulation and should include:

  • Quitting smoking.
  • Drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, spread over at least three days.
  • Taking regular exercise – a minimum of 150 minutes each week.
  • Sticking to a healthy diet – aim to get your five a day, and include oily fish.
  • Tackling stress – the hormones released when we're stressed can contribute to sluggish blood flow to the heart.
  • Being platelet-aware. Being over-40, post-menopausal, stressed, or leading a mostly sedentary lifestyle can all contribute to stickier platelets that may impede healthy blood flow and add stress to your circulatory system.
  • Taking supplements. Research has shown how Circulease, containing Fruitflow®, an extract from the jelly from around the seeds of a tomato, can help to prevent platelets from clumping together. They can then flow freely and smoothly throughout your blood and encourage healthy circulation.

In contrast to Aspirin, which has an irreversible effect on blood platelets that can result in internal bleeding or excessive blood loss following an injury, Fruitflow® safely slows the reactions of blood platelets down, while still allowing them to clot normally in the event of an injury.

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Karen Evennett

About Karen Evennett

Karen is a freelance health journalist and author/editor of 14 health books. She is a member of the Medical Journalists' Association and her features have appeared in various publications including Woman's Own and the Guardian.