How you can improve your vascular health

You can slow down the progress of peripheral arterial disease (PAD) by changing basic lifestyle habits, exercising and decreasing your risk factors.

Improving your circulation

  • Do not use tobacco. This includes pipes, cigars, cigarettes and chewing tobacco. Do not use e-cigarettes. Smoking is the most important risk factor for PAD.
  • Eat a diet low in cholesterol and saturated fat to reduce your risk of atherosclerosis. This is the process of plaque buildup in your arteries. The plaque slows or stops blood flow to and from your blood vessels.
  • Join a walking program to improve the circulation to your legs and promote growth of new blood vessels. Ask your health care provider for advice.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight. For every pound of fat, your heart needs to pump blood through an extra mile’s worth of blood vessels.
  • Watch your blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure (hypertension) you are at an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure or kidney damage. Your blood pressure should be less than 120 and less than 80. If you have diabetes your blood pressure should be less than 130/80. If you have high blood pressure, talk with your health care provider.
  • If you have diabetes, work to keep your blood glucose in good control. People with diabetes are at a greater risk for PAD because of the damage the disease can do to blood vessels. Check with your health care provider if you are having problems with your diabetes.

Taking good care of your feet

  • Check your feet every day for cuts, blisters, red spots, sores, cracks and swelling. Use a mirror to check the bottoms of your feet or ask a family member for help if you have trouble seeing.
  • Call your health care provider right away if a cut, sore, blister or bruise does not heal after several days. Your health care provider may apply a special dressing to help the wound heal and protect it from infection. You may also receive antibiotics (medicine) to fight an infection.
  • Wash your feet with mild soap and slightly warm water every day. Do not soak your feet because they may dry out.
  • Dry your feet well. Be sure to dry between the toes.
  • Use a thin coat of lotion and cream for dry skin, but not between your toes. Avoid lotions with perfumes.
  • Use a pumice stone to smooth corns and calluses.
  • Cut your toenails straight across and file the edges with an emery board or nail file.
  • Wear shoes and socks at all times.
    • Never walk barefoot.
    • Wear comfortable shoes that fit well and protect your feet.
    • Wear shoes at the beach or on hot pavement.
    • Wear socks at night if your feet get cold.
  • Always check inside your shoes for worn areas or things that might cause sores on your feet. Ask your health care provider about special shoes.
  • Avoid crossing your legs for long periods of time. Instead, cross your legs at the ankles.
  • Wiggle your toes and move your ankles up and down for five minutes, two or three times each day.

Why the Mediterranean diet is good for vascular health

While researchers are still digging into the science behind these choices, from what we know now, says Dr. Ozaki, patients with vascular concerns would be wise to consider the basics of that cuisine, even if they make some personal adaptations. While there are no magic nutritional bullets, vascular surgeons want their patients to maintain a lifestyle that is associated with vascular health – and that includes eating the right foods.

Since we have veins and arteries throughout the body, vascular disease ranges from vein disorders in the legs, poor circulation in the feet, abdominal aortic ruptures and renal or carotid problems. Most common is hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis), which causes stroke, heart attack, peripheral arterial disease and many other circulatory problems.

Around the world, other diets similar to the Mediterranean diet have also been associated with better vascular health and reduced deaths from cardiovascular issues.

Here’s what they all have in common:

1. Less salt, more flavor. The sodium in salt contributes to high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for artery disease. High blood pressure causes blood to pump harder through the vessels, which stresses and weakens them. The American Heart Association recommends 1,500 mg of sodium per day as an ideal goal, and no more than 2,300 mg.

TIP – Cut back on salt; perk up flavor with herbs, spices, garlic, onions, vinegars, lemon juice and other favorite flavorings. Seasonings popular in Mediterranean cooking are basil, chilies, cloves, cumin, fennel, garlic, marjoram, oregano, pepper, rosemary, sage, savory, tarragon and thyme.

TIP 2 – Avoid pizza. As an example, one slice of meat-topped pizza from a national chain has 1,300 mg of sodium, according to the company’s website.

Eat salmon or mackerel. These fish are rich in omega 3 fatty acids, which inhibit plaque inside the arteries, reduce blood clots and may increase good cholesterol and lower blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice a week. Other high omega 3 fish choices: cold-water varieties like tuna, trout, sardines and herring.

TIP – Fresh salmon can be pricy, but diners can save money by following the next tip.

If you like beef and pork, choose lean cuts, only occasionally and keep portion sizes moderate. Avoid lamb and poultry with skin. These are all high in saturated fats, which contains dietary cholesterol that can build up in the arteries. Researchers are still looking at the causes and effects of eating red meats, but until scientists have definitive answers, moderation is best.

TIP – Get protein from beans, legumes and nuts. Plant-based proteins are filling and healthful; think minestrone soup with beans or quinoa with pine nuts.

Eat more whole grains. Whole grains found in Mediterranean cooking include barley, oats, polenta, rice and couscous. Whole grains have soluble and insoluble fiber, which can help improve blood cholesterol levels by preventing the absorption of cholesterol in the intestines. Whole grains also are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

TIP – Avoid highly refined white bread, such as that in garlic bread, and white flour pasta.

Make fruits and vegetables a staple. In Mediterranean cuisine, a rainbow of vegetables and fruits are used in abundance. Not only do fruits and vegetables add vitamins and fiber to the diet, another new study has found that eating three or more servings per day is associated with a significant decrease in developing peripheral artery disease (PAD) and the foods are also associated with fewer heart attacks and strokes.

TIP – Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables are better than canned. Avoid adding extra salt or sugar for maximum benefit.

6. Use extra-virgin olive oil in place of other fats. Olive oil, which contains monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), may have important health benefits. According to the Mayo Clinic, MUFAs may lower bad cholesterol and improve the function of blood vessels. They also may help with insulin and blood sugar control, which is good for diabetics.

TIP – Avoid trans fats, such as those in margarine and some commercial baked goods, as they contribute to artery disease.

In the end, said Dr. Ozaki, while eating better will improve the odds of good vascular health, diet is just one factor. Smoking is certainly detrimental to vascular health, he said, and genetics matter too. Researchers are always finding new answers and he sympathizes with those who feel as though diet guidelines change all the time.

“Some of the things we said 10 years ago are not considered true now. And years from now, that could happen again. Our real goal is to get the right nutrition to the right patient at the right time of his or her life,” he noted, “but we are still learning how to get there. Meanwhile, I advise patients to eat a variety of nutritious foods from all food groups. Eat wisely and in moderation.”

The American Heart Association has nutrition information online. Start here.

## The Society for Vascular Surgery® (SVS) is a not-for-profit professional medical society, composed primarily of vascular surgeons, that seeks to advance excellence and innovation in vascular health through education, advocacy, research and public awareness.

Learn more about vascular conditions, tests and treatments.

CAPTION: Fruits, vegetables, fish and legumes are part of a vascular system-friendly diet.

3 Kinds of Exercise That Boost Heart Health

It’s also true that different types of exercise are needed to provide complete fitness. “Aerobic exercise and resistance training are the most important for heart health,” says Johns Hopkins exercise physiologist Kerry J. Stewart, Ed.D. “Although flexibility doesn’t contribute directly to heart health, it’s nevertheless important because it provides a good foundation for performing aerobic and strength exercises more effectively.”

Here’s how different types of exercise benefit you.

Aerobic Exercise

What it does: Aerobic exercise improves circulation, which results in lowered blood pressure and heart rate, Stewart says. In addition, it increases your overall aerobic fitness, as measured by a treadmill test, for example, and it helps your cardiac output (how well your heart pumps). Aerobic exercise also reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes and, if you already live with diabetes, helps you control your blood glucose.

How much: Ideally, at least 30 minutes a day, at least five days a week.

Examples: Brisk walking, running, swimming, cycling, playing tennis and jumping rope. Heart-pumping aerobic exercise is the kind that doctors have in mind when they recommend at least 150 minutes per week of moderate activity.

Resistance Training (Strength Work)

What it does: Resistance training has a more specific effect on body composition, Stewart says. For people who are carrying a lot of body fat (including a big belly, which is a risk factor for heart disease), it can help reduce fat and create leaner muscle mass. Research shows that a combination of aerobic exercise and resistance work may help raise HDL (good) cholesterol and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.

How much: At least two nonconsecutive days per week of resistance training is a good rule of thumb, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

Examples: Working out with free weights (such as hand weights, dumbbells or barbells), on weight machines, with resistance bands or through body-resistance exercises, such as push-ups, squats and chin-ups.

Stretching, Flexibility and Balance

What they do: Flexibility workouts, such as stretching, don’t directly contribute to heart health. What they do is benefit musculoskeletal health, which enables you to stay flexible and free from joint pain, cramping and other muscular issues. That flexibility is a critical part of being able to maintain aerobic exercise and resistance training, says Stewart.

“If you have a good musculoskeletal foundation, that enables you to do the exercises that help your heart,” he says. As a bonus, flexibility and balance exercises help maintain stability and prevent falls, which can cause injuries that limit other kinds of exercise.

How much: Every day and before and after other exercise.

Examples: Your doctor can recommend basic stretches you can do at home, or you can find DVDs or YouTube videos to follow (though check with your doctor if you’re concerned about the intensity of the exercise). Tai chi and yoga also improve these skills, and classes are available in many communities.

A healthy diet can be good for your heart as well as your waistline.

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“You can definitely reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease by eating certain foods every day,” says preventive cardiology dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD. “There is a great variety of fruits and vegetables that are good for your heart.”

“Try to eat foods that are in their natural form, as they come from the ground,” Zumpano says, recommending what she calls the “whole-foods diet.”

That diet includes, of course, heart-healthy foods such as nuts, fish, whole grains, olive oil, vegetables and fruits, but don’t be afraid to treat yourself occasionally with a glass of red wine or a piece of dark chocolate, Zumpano says. She suggests using this list as a guide to create meals and snacks with a healthy focus. Just a few simple swaps could make a big difference for your cardiovascular health.

12 foods that are good for your heart

  1. Eat fish high in omega-3s, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring and trout.
  2. A handful of healthy nuts such as almonds or walnuts will satisfy your hunger and help your heart.
  3. Berries are chock full of heart-healthy phytonutrients and soluble fiber. Try blueberries, strawberries, blackberries or raspberries in cereal or yogurt.
  4. Seeds. Flaxseeds contain omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and phytoestogens to boost heart health. Take them in ground or milled form to reap the greatest benefit. Chia seeds also provide omega 3, fiber and protein and can be eaten whole.
  5. Oats are the comfort-food nutrient powerhouse. Try toasting oats to top yogurt, salads or to add into a trail mix if you are not a fan of them cooked.
  6. Legumes. Dried beans and lentils ― such as garbanzo, pinto, kidney or black beans, are high in fiber, B-vitamins, minerals and other good stuff. Veggie chili, anyone?
  7. A 4-ounce glass of red wine (up to two for men and one for women per day) can help improve good (HDL) cholesterol levels.
  8. Soy. Add edmame beans or marinated tofu in a stir-fry with fresh veggies for a heart-healthy lunch or dinner.
  9. Red, yellow and orange veggies such as carrots, sweet potatoes, red peppers, tomatoes and acorn squash are packed with carotenoids, fiber and vitamins to help your heart.
  10. Green veggies. Popeye was right ― spinach packs a punch! So does kale, Swiss chard, collard/mustard greens and bok choy. Use these sandwiches and salads instead of lettuce. Broccoli and asparagus are filled with mighty nutrients such as vitamins C and E, potassium, folate, calcium and fiber.
  11. Fruits such as oranges, cantaloupes and papaya are rich in beta-carotene, potassium, magnesium and fiber.
  12. Dark chocolate is good for your heart health. The higher the percentage of cocoa the better! (The fiber and protein increase with higher cocoa and the sugar decreases). If you are a fan of milk chocolate. start with at least 70% cocoa.

A Healthy Diet

Eating a healthy diet can reduce your chances of developing vascular disease. A good balanced diet can not only keep your weight, cholesterol and blood pressure under control but it can also prevent against fatty deposits building up in your arteries. It can also reduce your risk of getting Type 2 diabetes.

Make sure you include plenty of fruit, vegetables and starchy foods, like wholegrain bread, pasta and rice, and reduce the amount of saturated fat, salt and sugar you include in your diet.

Fruits and vegetables
There is good evidence that eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day can lower the risk of vascular disease.

Fats
We all need some fat in our diet; it is a good source of energy and provides essential fatty acids which our bodies cannot make themselves. However, eating too much fat, especially saturated fat, can raise the level of cholesterol in your blood and increase your risk of vascular disease. Try cutting back on the total amount of fat you eat and replace saturated fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Salt
Eating too much salt can raise your blood pressure. By reducing the amount of salt you consume you can lower blood pressure and reduce your risk of vascular disease, heart attack and stroke.

For more information on a healthy diet, visit the NHS Choices website, which has some great online tools to help you:

  • check your BMI
  • find out how healthy your current diet is
  • plan healthier meals
  • make your weekly shopping healthier

Exercise is vital to vascular health too. See our tips for an active, healthy lifestyle and to read more about other risk factors and how to minimise them, please go to the vascular health information page.

Whilst we make every effort to ensure that the information contained on this site is accurate, it is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment, and the Circulation Foundation recommends consultation with your doctor or health care professional.

The Circulation Foundation cannot accept liability for any loss or damage resulting from any inaccuracy in this information or third party information such as information on websites to which we link.

The information provided is intended to support patients, not provide personal medical advice.

Foods That Improve Circulation

Having good blood circulation is vital to our overall health. Circulation is controlled by your heart, which pumps blood through the arteries and feeds the body’s tissues. It removes waste throughout the body and carries it to where it can be broken down.

Through circulation, blood delivers nutrients and minerals throughout the body, stimulating cell growth and healthy organ function. The air we breathe is transported by the blood from the lungs throughout the rest of the body.

So what can you do to improve your circulation and your overall heart health? There are many lifestyle changes you can make, including your diet. Let’s take a look at some of the foods that improve circulation, that are both healthy and delicious.

Green Tea

Green tea is packed with antioxidants, which widen the blood vessels in the body, increasing blood flow. The benefits of drinking green tea have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system. It’s recommended to drink two to three cups of green tea daily to improve circulation.

Ginkgo Biloba

This herb is another powerful antioxidant that improves circulation by opening the blood vessels. It can be used as both a preventative effort or to reverse the effects of poor circulation. It improves blood flow to the brain, which is why it is credited with improving memory as well.

Fruits

There are several different types of fruit that can improve circulation. Oranges and others high in Vitamin C are natural blood thinners, while strengthening capillary walls. Watermelon is high in lycopene, which is commonly taken for preventing heart disease, and can improve circulation.

Nuts

It’s recommended to eat raw nuts, as cooked nuts tend to be more acidic. Walnuts and almonds are high in vitamins A, B, C and E and magnesium and iron. These nutrients all contribute to improving blood circulation.

Cayenne

Cayenne pepper is spicy because it contains capsaicin, which stimulates blood flow. Cayenne stimulates the heart and strengthens capillaries and arteries.

Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate contains cocoa, which has been known to improve blood circulation. The flavanols in dark chocolate can stimulate the lining of the arteries, producing nitric oxide, which then relaxes the arteries. Be sure to select a chocolate that contains at least 70 percent cocoa.

Other Things You Can Do

Improving your circulation can be done by more than adding these foods to your diet. Besides incorporating these foods into your diet, limit your salt intake and reduce caffeine and alcohol.

If you’re experiencing cramping in your legs, elevate them to take the pressure off your veins. Make sure they’re elevated above your heart to promote vein function and blood flow back to the heart. Elevate them for 20 minutes to relieve swelling.

A great way to improve your circulation is with exercise because it gets your blood pumping. According to the American Heart Association, vigorous aerobic activity benefits the heart, lungs and circulation, and the organization recommends at least 90 to 150 minutes each week.

If you’re experiencing circulation issues, you may have claudication, a symptom of PAD. Check out our guide, Understanding Leg Pain Caused By Restricted Arteries.

Foods for vascular health

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