What causes circulation problems?

9 factors that cause circulation issues

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S.A.C. Dip (Diet, Exercise & Fitness), Advanced Human Anatomy & Physiology Level 3
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24 April 2020

What causes poor circulation?

Some factors that can contribute to poor circulation are:

  1. High cholesterol
  2. Being overweight/obese
  3. Smoking
  4. High alcohol consumption
  5. Age
  6. Physical inactivity
  7. Poorly managed diabetes
  8. Stress
  9. Poor diet

So, let's take a look a closer look at these issues and find out what you can do about them!

1. High cholesterol

Cholesterol is a type of fat found in the body, most of which is made by the liver from the saturated fats found in our diet. If cholesterol levels get too high it can build up and harden around the artery walls causing poor circulation. This is a problem known as atherosclerosis and may also increase the likelihood of high blood pressure and heart attack.

Being overweight puts us at risk of high cholesterol, as does smoking and lack of activity.

Top tip

Try to limit your intake of saturated fats if you are concerned about high cholesterol. These are readily found in sausage meat, as well as cakes, butter, biscuits and cheese. Foods that are more favourable include oily fish, brown rice, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables.

Also, lots of refined sugar (cakes, biscuits etc.) can cause a build-up of unhealthy fats as surplus sugar is turned into triglycerides (a type of fat found in the blood). So, it is helpful to bear in mind that there's no point opting for low-fat foods if you are also having lots of sugar elsewhere in your diet.

For more tips on managing cholesterol, check out this blog by our digestion advisor Ali – Managing cholesterol – is diet really the key?

2. Being overweight or obese

Being overweight is itself a contributing factor in poor circulation; however, it can also increase the risk of developing varicose veins.

This is when veins, usually in the legs, become swollen or enlarged, thus weakening valves inside the veins and making it more difficult for blood to be pumped through. This means blood can pool in certain areas, leading to the appearance of varicose veins.

Top tip

As well as eating good healthy foods (put aside those ready meals and sweet treats!) and increasing your activity levels to reduce weight, research shows that you may want to put down your phone too!

A study published in 2019 found that university students who used their smartphones for five or more hours per day had a 43% increased risk of obesity.1 Using your phone a lot encourages sedentary behaviours and reduces the amount of time we are physically active. In turn, this can lead to various health issues, including poor circulation, musculoskeletal problems, heart disease and diabetes.

The group found to be at increased risk of obesity were also more likely to partake in bad lifestyle habits such as smoking, drinking sugary drinks, eating fast food and not exercising, which only adds to the likelihood of health issues.

So, it looks like spending less time scrolling through social media could be good for circulation!

3. Smoking

By now we are all well aware of the risks associated with smoking but did you know that it could also have a negative impact on your circulation?

Smoking prevents good blood flow around the body and can damage blood vessels. It may also cause the build-up of plaque within the veins. On top of this, we know that smoking increases the risk of developing conditions that can lead to circulation issues, such as high cholesterol and diabetes.

The NHS website has lots of tips for anyone needing a little help to stop smoking. This includes making up strategies to distract yourself whenever you feel that pang for a cigarette.

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4. High alcohol consumption

The heart is central to the circulatory system and sends blood around the body via blood vessels. Consuming large quantities of alcohol may affect the function of the heart, leading to circulation issues.

Top tip

Adults should try not to consume more than 14 units of alcohol a week. There are approximately two units in a pint of beer or a small glass of wine.

5. Age

Unfortunately, with age we can become more susceptible to circulation issues. Also, regular movement is key to good circulation and for some people, this isn't so easily achieved as they get older, due to health problems like arthritis.

Top tip

Stay active as much as possible as you get older to try to support your circulation – you can take a look at some examples of low impact exercises to help your circulation here.

Some people may also wish to try compression socks. These can improve blood flow in the legs and reduce any visible swelling.

6. Physical inactivity

Nowadays, it is quite common to spend long hours sitting down as we devote more and more time to using our phones, watching box sets and using computers/tablets, both at home and at work.

Sitting down has been shown to reduce blood flow, particularly to the lower extremities. In research, being seated with your legs crossed was found to be especially problematic. Symptoms of poor circulation, such as cold feet and pins and needles, were more likely in those who regularly took up this position.2 It's also recommended not to cross your ankles in bed as sleeping with your ankles crossed impedes night time blood flow.

In the long term, sitting for long periods can mean that cells and tissues are not supplied with oxygen and, as a result, they may not be able to function properly.

Top tip

Break up sedentary activities and get moving with our easy exercises to do at home. Something as simple as walking up the stairs more frequently can benefit your circulation.

7. Poorly managed diabetes

One of the symptoms of diabetes is poor blood circulation, particularly to the feet. Therefore, if the condition is poorly managed this may become noticeable.

Top tip

Diabetes should always be managed by your doctor so, if you are struggling, there's no harm in arranging a catch up to discuss any issues.

8. Stress

Lots of stress can affect the nervous system and increase the heart rate, constrict blood vessels and raise blood pressure. All of this has a negative impact on circulation.

Top tip

Try an activity like yoga that will help to get your body moving whilst also developing an awareness of mindful breathing that can provide some relaxation and promote better blood flow.

A massage can also be very relaxing, plus it helps to stimulate blood flow.

9. Poor diet

A poor diet means that the body gets insufficient nutrients to keep it functioning well. Vitamins C and B, for example, support the health of the blood vessels and aid blood flow.

So, a good diet can play an important part in maintaining healthy circulation but what kinds of foods should you be honing in on?

Unhealthy choices Healthy swaps
Ready meals Fish like salmon contains omega 3 which benefits the heart and circulation.
Chocolate Fruits, particularly blackberries and watermelon, which can aid blood flow.
Biscuits Ginger stimulates blood flow. Add it to a healthy smoothie for a morning snack.
Cake Nuts and seeds make a good snack. Pumpkin seeds contain vitamin E which supports blood flow.
High salt (crisps, pizza, some canned foods) Add garlic to flavour meals. This is a natural blood thinner.


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