Improving blood circulation can help your overall health by optimizing the flow of oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. Poor circulation can be caused by many factors, including heart disease and diabetes, and blood flow can be impeded if arteries are stiff or narrow, or if blood is thick and clots easily. While increased physical activity, proper hydration and abstinence from smoking can all help improve blood circulation, diet has a major effect on improving blood flow -- including food's role in stimulating nitric oxide production and reducing inflammation. Specific nutrients in food and an overall healthy diet pattern may help improve blood circulation.
L-Arginine and Nitrates
The amino acid L-arginine is necessary for the production of nitric oxide (NO), according to a May 2016 article published in "Nutrients." NO contributes to the regulation of blood flow by relaxing and widening blood vessels, improving circulation and lowering blood pressure. Other benefits of NO include antiinflammatory action and the ability to reduce blood clotting -- properties that can prevent narrowing of the arteries and resultant poor blood flow. Arginine is found in many common foods such as seafood, sesame seeds, spinach and turkey. Dietary nitrate, which is also converted to NO, has been noted to improve blood pressure and cause blood vessels to widen -- known as vasodilation. Beets, celery, lettuce, spinach and arugula are sources of dietary nitrate.
Phytonutrients are compounds in plants that provide a health benefit and often exhibit antiinflammatory properties. Inflammation can cause damage to arteries and impair blood flow. Antioxidants, a class of phytonutrients such as vitamin C and vitamin E, can decrease C-reactive protein, a major inflammatory marker, and reduce overall inflammation, according to a May 2009 study published in the "British Journal of Nutrition." To consume a diet rich in phytonutrients, eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables each day, along with regular helpings of whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes.
Red wine has long been regarded as beneficial for heart health. Resveratrol, the main phytonutrient in red wine, has been shown to increase NO production, causing dilation of blood vessels and improving blood flow, according to a May 2016 article in "Nutrients." Research findings from a February 2008 article in the "American Journal of Physiology: Heart and Circulatory Physiology" determined that 1 glass of red wine improved blood flow, but a higher daily amount was accompanied by some negative effects, such as increased heart rate.
A study published in the August 2003 issue of the "Journal of Hypertension" reports the flavanols in cocoa also stimulate NO production and cause dilation of blood vessels. A March 2009 study published in "Circulation" concurred with these results, noting cocoa can also improve blood flow to the brain, which may improve thinking ability, and reduce the risk of stroke and dementia. But not all cocoas are equal. Cocoa can vary greatly in flavanol content, due to processing, and flavanol content is not required on food labels. In addition to cocoa, dark chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa solids is typically a good source of flavanols.
The Mediterranean diet, traditional Japanese diet and well-planned vegetarian diets -- rich in nitrates, L-arginine, antioxidants and flavanols -- are all associated with lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a March 2013 study published in the "British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology." The authors link these outcomes, at least in part, to blood vessel health benefits from such dietary patterns that emphasize fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. These diet patterns tend to also be a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, another dietary component that stimulates NO production and causes vasodilation of the arteries, according to a January 2015 review article published in "BioMed Research International." Foods rich in omega-3 fats include oily fish such as salmon and sardines, as well as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts and canola oil.
Warnings and Precautions
A healthy diet can improve blood circulation and reduce the risk of heart disease. Some of the plant chemicals linked to these benefits are available as dietary supplements, but speak to your doctor before starting any new supplements to avoid medication interactions. A registered dietitian can help evaluate your current diet and make recommendations to improve your diet's heart health potential, if necessary. If you experience any symptoms related to heart disease, such as chest pain or severe shortness of breath, seek medical attention. If concerned about your risk of heart disease, speak with your doctor.
Reviewed by: Kay Peck, MPH, RD