Do you ever feel swollen? You’re struggling to get your regular shoes on, your rings don’t fit, and you feel generally heavy… if that sounds familiar, you may be experiencing poor blood circulation. While poor circulation isn’t an established medical condition, it is a common complaint and can be a sign of something more serious.
The extremities - the feet and hands - are the most common regions to experience poor blood circulation and if severe, it can drastically impact your quality of life. In this article we’re going to explain what causes poor circulation in the feet and what you can do about it.
What is poor circulation?
The definition of poor circulation is an inadequacy of blood flow to a particular area of the body that results in too little oxygen being delivered to the area. In serious or chronic cases, poor circulation can become hypoxia. Hypoxia is a major risk factor for heart attack and tissue damage.
What are the symptoms of poor circulation?
If you are wondering whether you are experiencing poor circulation, here are some of the major symptoms to look for, as defined by The Center for Vascular Medicine:
- Swollen veins and arteries (varicose veins)
- Tingling or numbness
- A feeling of heaviness in the extremities
- Swollen limbs
- Skin tears or welts
- Pain, aches or general discomfort
In the feet specifically, poor circulation may present as:
- Lack of hair growth on legs and feet
- Toenails grow very slowly or not at all
- Cold feet
- Discoloration of the feet - specifically blue or purple colored
- Discomfort wearing shoes due to swelling
- ‘Pins and needles’
Is poor circulation in feet dangerous?
If you have experienced any of these conditions or more importantly, a combination of these symptoms, you have likely experienced poor circulation. We all may experience this condition occasionally, and it’s not necessarily indicative of a serious medical condition or disease.
For example, when the temperature drops outside, our blood vessels restrict blood flow to our extremities to maintain our core temperature, which can affect circulation, but is not dangerous (unless you get frostbite!).
However, if poor circulation is severe - involving symptoms like discoloration, noticeable swelling, pain - or chronic - defined as lasting one or more years or requiring constant medical attention - poor circulation can be a symptom of an underlying disease. If you are experiencing this it is essential to seek medical attention.
When poor circulation is left untreated it can compromise and damage a major organ like the heart, lungs, or even the brain. When normal blood flow is obstructed or restricted the organ or tissue is not able to receive the oxygen or nutrients carried in the blood. This may be deadly.
What causes poor circulation in feet?
There are a number of common conditions that are associated with the symptom of poor circulation. Here are some of the main causes of poor circulation in the feet:
When you are carrying excess weight, a few things happen that put you at greater risk of having poor circulation. Firstly, the additional fat tissue needs oxygen and nutrients, requiring blood vessels to circulate more blood. This forces the heart to work harder and pump more blood to reach the extra fat tissue. This puts pressure on the artery walls, increasing blood pressure and increasing the risk of blockages, affecting successful circulation.
Poor circulation is most commonly experienced in the feet in the case of obesity because the extra weight means more pressure, and your feet are responsible for bearing that load. If you spend a lot of time on your feet this can make it worse.
2. Peripheral artery disease (PAD)
PAD is a circulatory condition that decreases the size of the blood vessels and arteries. This can inhibit blood circulation, particularly to the extremities. The main cause of this condition is atherosclerosis - a condition characterized by the buildup of fatty deposits on the artery walls, restricting blood flow. Both PAD and atherosclerosis are serious medical conditions that increase your risk of heart attack or stroke.
Diabetes is a blood sugar condition common in individuals with obesity and high blood pressure. A lesser known symptom of this condition is poor circulation in the feet. Research shows that this is because high glucose levels damage the lining of small blood vessels, causing them to narrow and harden, limiting the amount of blood flow. The connection between diabetes and poor circulation in the feet is well established, as covered in this 2005 study published in Current Pharmaceutical.
There are a number of other conditions responsible for poor circulation including:
- Raynaud’s disease
- Blood clots
- Varicose veins
These conditions all cause the narrowing of blood vessels which obstructs blood flow to the extremities.
How can you treat poor circulation in feet?
If you are looking to improve circulation in your feet there are a few key diet and lifestyle habits you can practice that may provide you with a solution. Following a healthy diet and losing excess weight has been shown in studies to have a notably positive effect on circulation.
One such study was published in 2009 - researchers observed that when obese participants lost weight, their circulation improved due to adjusted adiponectin levels. Adiponectin is a protein that breaks down fats and stabilizes blood glucose levels, improving blood flow and circulation.
To adopt a healthy diet with the goal of improving circulation, decrease your salt intake, eat a mainly plant-based diet, iron-rich foods, omega-3 rich fatty acids like salmon or walnuts, and ensure adequate hydration. This type of diet will also result in weight loss.
Aside from a healthy diet, it is essential to exercise more if you want to improve your circulation. Cardiovascular exercises like running, walking, hiking or cycling, increases the heart rate and blood flow, improving circulation. A sedentary lifestyle can increase the risk of developing a condition associated with poor circulation like obesity or type II diabetes - so get moving!
We hope this has given you an insight into some of the main causes and symptoms of poor circulation in the feet. If you are experiencing poor circulation, seek medical advice, improve your diet, and exercise more - don’t ignore it! Good luck.