The Most Used Muscle
The circulatory system is vital to the proper function of the human body. Our blood plays an important role in maintaining homeostasis (balance) by bringing essential nutrients and oxygen to our organs and many parts of the body. With poor circulation, beneficial oxygen and healthy nutrients do not reach necessary areas of the body. While harmful metabolic substances, like carbon monoxide and dioxide, become entrapped in tissues leading to disease.
Excess fat and cholesterol can build up on the walls of arteries, forming a substance known as plaque. Plaque narrows arteries and reduces blood flow. If left untreated, blocked blood flow can cause tissue death. Legs are often affected by decreased circulation leading to symptoms of claudication, a dull cramping pain in the calf muscle that comes on after walking long distances and is relieved by rest. As the condition worsens, the distance becomes shorter and shorter. Other signs of decreased circulation can include: numbness or tingling in the feet and toes, changes in skin colour or temperature, skin damage, or infections that do not heal as well as they should.
Lack of physical activity, smoking, high blood pressure and obesity are all risk factors known for contributing to poor circulation. Other less known factors found to narrow arteries and increase plaque formation include heavy metals, infection, inflammation, hypercoagulability (sticky blood), nitric oxide deficiency and oxalate crystal formation (stone formation). These factors are also associated with common diseases observed with problems in circulation, for example, diabetes, varicose veins, venous thrombosis, pregnancy, atherosclerosis, edema, high or low blood pressure and multiple sclerosis. Improper nutrition, increased acidic toxins and changes in pH (acid/base balance in the body) are also believed to play a role in circulation. In the environment, we are exposed to free radicals that are known to damage cells. Our oxygen supply and our diet, especially the consumption of soft drinks, are potential sources of free radicals. Proper food consumption of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and essential fatty acids are important to decrease acidity in the body, neutralize free radicals, strengthen the integrity of our cells and prevent break down in veins, arteries and capillaries.
Traditionally in Chinese Medicine, the major activity of blood is to circulate continuously through the body, nourishing, maintaining and moistening. When either the entire body or a particular organ is insufficiently nourished, a deficiency can result leading to signs of paleness, lusterless face, dizziness and dry skin. However, when blood becomes obstructed, this form of stagnant blood can cause sharp, stabbing pains. Understanding the importance of blood to the function of the body allows us to see how low energy, irregular heartbeats, shortness of breath, lack of stamina and sluggish memory can be indications of blood failing to nourish and maintain the body.
The concerns of poor circulation are often believed to begin in adulthood. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Dr. Sanaz Piran, an internal medicine resident at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, has reported early onset of atherosclerosis in children too. As obesity, lack of physical activity and improper diet are also growing problems in the young population. These risk factors may allow for children to be more susceptible for developing circulatory problems. The article reviewed data on 3,620 children aged 5 to 18 and found early signs of atherosclerosis in the children. A measurement of the amount of plaque on artery walls by ultrasound, known as CIMT (Carotid artery intima media thickness), is used as a marker for atherosclerosis and heart disease in adults. In 2010, another study of 6-19 year old obese children, found CIMT measurements similar to 45-year-old adults. These findings show a cause for concern. Obese children have been found to have stiff aortas. The aorta is the largest artery in the body which delivers blood from the heart to the network of arteries in the body. Proper blood flow through this vessel is very critical. A stiff aorta usually results in increased blood pressure and increased risk of cardiac and vascular diseases. Stiff blood vessels are caused by inflammation in the blood vessels; as the body tries to heal itself, it lays down calcium to heal the inflammation, thereby decreasing elasticity.
The elasticity of blood vessels is very important to blood pressure. Blood pressure is the amount of force that blood exerts on the walls of blood vessels as it passes through them. There are two pressures measured with blood pressure. Systolic is a measure of the pressure that occurs while the heart is beating (the top number) and diastolic is the pressure while the heart is relaxed (the bottom number). The heart is a pump forcing blood throughout the body. Pulse is used to measure the speed the heart is pumping. When the heart contracts an increased amount of pressure is needed to move the blood (systolic). Between heart beats, it is relaxed and filling with blood (diastolic). Tight constricted blood vessels require the heart to work harder, thus increasing blood pressure and pulse. On the other hand, dilated blood vessels allow the blood to flow easier through the vascular system, decreasing how hard the heart has to work and therefore lowering blood pressure and pulse. Increasing the diameter of a blood vessel by 15% doubles the blood flow, allowing more oxygen to reach the body. High blood pressure is known as hypertension. Normal blood pressure is 120/80 mmHg. Stage 1 Hypertension gives a diastolic reading of 90 – 99 mmHg and systolic reading of 140 – 159 mmHg. Stage 2 Hypertension gives a diastolic reading of ≥ 100 mmHg and a systolic reading of ≥ 160 mmHg. Elevated blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. As blood vessels become scarred, hardened and less elastic, they are more likely to become blocked or rupture. It is important to maintain a balanced blood pressure. Having a systolic blood pressure below 90 mmHg is considered hypotension and can be life-threatening in severe cases.
The importance of circulation to health is not something that should be overlooked. Maintaining proper blood flow to the body is essential to preventing diseases in the peripheral, cerebral and cardiovascular systems. Reducing risk factors that can inhibit blood movement should be considered as early as childhood.
- Le, J., Zhang, D., Menees, S., Chen, J., Raghuveer, G. (2010). “Vascular age” is advanced in children with atherosclerosis-promoting risk factors. Circ Cardiovasc Imaging, (3)8-14.
- Raghuveer, G. (2010). Lifetime cardiovascular risk of childhood obesity. Am J Clin Nutr, 91(suppl):1514S-9S.