While you go about your day an intricate network of blood vessels is busy circulating blood between your heart, your lungs and every cell in your body. These vessel networks extend for more than 60,000 miles and are critical to human survival. Most people, however, think about their vascular health only after they develop circulatory problems, varicose veins or heart disease.
Maintaining the elasticity of our arteries and veins, it turns out, is a key part of preventing vascular and heart problems as we age. In this article we reveal 11 things you can do today to reduce your risk of disease stemming from the stiffening of your arteries and veins.
What is Artery and Vein Elasticity?
Our arteries and veins contain collagen and elastin which allow our blood vessels to stretch with the pulsing of our heart. This elasticity plays a key role in maintaining consistent blood pressure through the rhythmic beating of our hearts. As we age, the elastin and collagen break down which contributes to artery and vein stiffness ie loss of elasticity.
Arteries have thicker, and smoother, walls than veins as they need to withstand the pressure from the beating heart. Veins have thinner walls, and are generally more elastic, because they need more room to hold blood.
Why is Artery and Vein Elasticity Important for your Health?
Many diseases stemming from the arteries and veins are caused at least in part by the hardening, or stiffening, of the blood vessels. This simply means that the vessels lose some of their elasticity, so they become narrower and less flexible. This can lead to high blood pressure and other medical issues that put stress on your body and dramatically increase your risk of developing heart disease or enduring a heart attack or stroke.
Approximately 80 percent of older Americans suffer from some form of atherosclerosis or heart disease. Along with inflammation, researchers now believe that the hardening of the arteries later in life is a leading cause of the disease. They are now working to find treatments that decrease inflammation while limiting or eliminating the loss of artery elasticity, and the results are showing great promise for effective treatment through nutrition.
Some of the best ways to keep your arteries and veins elastic and strong are also recommended for overall health and wellness, so you’re likely implementing some of them in your daily life already. You may want to step up your efforts or make a few new changes once you learn about the following ways to keep your arteries and veins flexible and free of plaque.
What Can Go Wrong with Your Arteries?
Your arteries are filled with rich, oxygenated blood that is loaded with nutrients desperately needed by every cell in your body. Problems in the network can lead to serious health risks, including atherosclerosis. This occurs when arteries are clogged by cholesterol, fat, calcium and other substances. These substances form plaques that restrict the flow of blood through the arteries.
When cholesterol plaques form in the coronary arteries, the diagnosis is coronary artery disease. Carotid artery disease is the result of a clogged carotid artery, which transports blood between the brain and heart.
When the walls of an artery weaken, they start to expand like balloons and put you at risk of an aneurysm. While that sounds bad, the most serious medical issue involving an artery is probably an aortic dissection. The aorta is a large artery that extends from the heart, and a tear in its inner lining is often fatal.
What Can Go Wrong with Your Veins?
Some of the biggest medical issues involving the veins are more cosmetic than life-threatening. For instance, most people will develop varicose or spider veins at some point in life. These red or blue veins protruding from the legs, thighs or other body parts represent a slow flow of blood through the veins due to weak valves. Blood collects in the vein, causing it to expand and become more prominent from the top layer of skin.
When blood clots develop within a deep vein, a condition known as deep vein thrombosis is diagnosed. There’s a risk of the clot traveling through the vein to the lungs, where it can cause a pulmonary embolism. Superficial thrombophlebitis is a condition that involves blood clots in veins just under the skin. There is less risk of the clot traveling due to the shallow depth of these veins.
Now that you have a good idea of what your blood vessels are and why it’s so important to take care of them, let’s discuss what you can do to keep your arteries and veins strong, elastic and healthy.
11 Ways to Protect and Improve the Elasticity of Your Veins & Arteries
Commit to a workout routine that includes cardiovascular exercise and calf-strengthening movements.
The theories and systems surrounding exercise are almost endless and tend to correspond with specific health and fitness goals. For instance, the exercise routine of someone trying to build lean muscle for competition will vary from an obese person trying to lose weight.
If you’re concerned about artery and vein health, you want to champion cardiovascular exercise over weightlifting. This goes against a lot of scientific research that shows the powerful benefits of lifting weights, especially as you get older and want to maintain your muscle while improving strength and balance. It may also make life a bit more challenging if you’re a bodybuilder or enjoy lifting heavy.
The reality is that lifting heavy weights makes it more difficult for veins in the calves and feet to pump blood up to the heart. These veins work hard to push the blood into the abdominals and then through to the heart, but the strain of weightlifting can prevent the blood from passing easily through the abdominals. The blood can flow back into the legs, where it can easily pool and cause varicose or spider veins. This may put you at risk for blood clots as well.
This doesn’t mean that you should never lift weights. It just means that you should follow a few rules to ensure that your overall exercise routine supports the needs of your veins and arteries:
- If weightlifting suits your fitness goals, make sure to do cardio work immediately following each lifting session. This will help the veins in your feet and calves push oxygen-depleted blood all the way up to your heart without pooling in the legs.
- Consider combining cardiovascular exercise and weight training through circuits or high-intensity interval training, also known as HIIT. You can perform your most challenging strength-building movements immediately followed by brief rounds of jumping jacks, jogging, biking or walking to keep the blood flowing smoothly despite the strain of heavy lifting.
- Try to walk, bike, jog or perform another cardiovascular exercise for at least 30 minutes most days of the week. This is the minimum needed to support healthy blood flow through your veins and arteries. Start by simply walking and increase your speed or length of exercise time when you’re ready. You don’t need to run a marathon to keep your veins and arteries healthy.
How is this cardiovascular exercise going to help your blood vessels? It comes down to the following proven benefits of exercise for vein and artery health:
- Keeps cholesterol levels under control to lower the risk of cholesterol plaque buildup
- Lowers the risk of diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, which are factors leading to blood clots, blocked arteries and heart disease
- Improves arterial and venous functioning for people already suffering from atherosclerosis, limiting the negative impact of the disease
- Enhances the production of nitric oxide, which keeps the inner lining of arteries smooth so that it’s more difficult for plaque to stick and collect
This last point is important because the human body naturally produces less nitric oxide with age. Research has shown that exercising consistently throughout your life is a powerful way to keep the nitric oxide flowing, helping you prevent cardiovascular disease. That alone is an excellent reason to make cardio exercise a priority in your daily life.
While some cardiovascular exercises will naturally strengthen your calf muscles, you may want to add a few calf-strengthening moves to your workout routine. This is important because the calves are what give oxygen-depleted blood a big push through the veins, allowing it to clear the abdominals and reach the heart efficiently.
Learn more about the importance of strong calf muscles and why calves are often called the second heart.
Limit prolonged sitting or standing.
This is separate from your workout routine because it pertains to your overall lifestyle and will dictate how you work or just relax while at home. You have two primary goals:
- Increase your daily activity level so that you move frequently throughout the day.
- Change positions so that you don’t sit or stand for long periods of time.
Research has shown that there are many health risks associated with prolonged standing, including:
- Low back pain
- Swollen legs
- Muscular pain
- Venous disorders
There are also quite a few health risks that come with prolonged sitting or a sedentary lifestyle, including:
- Increases the storage of fat while decreasing the amount of fat burned for fuel
- Contributes to weight gain and obesity
- Increases the risk of coronary heart disease
- Increases the risk of kidney disease
You can overcome all of these health risks by varying your position to ensure that you’re transitioning between sitting, standing, walking and other movements throughout the day. Here are some ways that you can do this without interrupting your daily life:
- When performing tasks that require sitting, set a timer and get up to walk around at least one minute for every 20-30 minutes spent sitting. Many people make it routine to get up and walk around for the last 5-10 minutes of each hour that they spend sitting. You can use these mini breaks to refill your water bottle, use the restroom or take care of small cleaning chores. If you’re feeling tired, try walking up and down a hallway or stairway during your break.
- Don’t let technology keep you sedentary. If you can walk down the hall to talk to a colleague rather than sending an email, do it. Use the stairs rather than the elevator. Pull the door open rather than hitting the handicapped button. Always take the more active option.
- Instead of sitting in a stuffy office or boardroom, ask your colleagues or clients to meet you for a walking meeting. The fresh air and change in scenery will boost creativity and give everyone a refreshing wake-up call, and you can freely talk through issues with less tension and stress. You’ll also get the blood flowing smoothly through those veins and arteries.
- Invest in a standing desk and/or treadmill desk. This allows you to remain productive while switching between standing and sitting at regular intervals. This is better than remaining completely sedentary, but remember that standing for long periods of time is just as bad for your circulatory system as prolonged sitting.
- If you have some flexibility in your schedule, plan a mid-day workout. This allows you to break up your work time to get your blood flowing, and it will wake you up to prevent that mid-day slump. If exercising later in the day prevents you from sleeping soundly, mid-day is a great time to get it in before you’re ready to unwind.
If you’re currently living a sedentary lifestyle, improving your activity level while adding exercise into your daily schedule may feel overwhelming. Start slowly by adding activity breaks into your day and going for a short walk at a scheduled time. You will naturally start pushing yourself to do more as your health improves, and your blood vessels will benefit from every small improvement that is consistently implemented.
Reduce your salt intake and stay hydrated.
Research has proven that dehydration and elevated salt levels contribute to atherosclerosis and inflammation within endothelial cells, which are found in the interior lining of blood vessels. By simply increasing your water consumption on a consistent basis, you improve the health of your arteries and veins. Make an effort to limit your salt intake, and your vascular health improves even more.
Staying hydrated is easier today than ever before. You can add a water filtration system to your home to improve the purity of your water while enhancing the taste naturally. Filtering jugs that go in the refrigerator are also available if you don’t want to spend the money on whole-house filtration. You can also enjoy sparkling waters or a fruit infusion water bottle to give your drinks more variety and flavor.
To reduce your salt intake, stay away from canned and frozen foods. Fast food restaurants load their meals with salt, so cooking more of your meals with fresh ingredients is always your healthiest option.
Consume one cup of blueberries or other berries each day.
Berries are loaded with antioxidants, and blueberries have the highest concentration of all fruits and vegetables. Researchers have put these little berries to the test, so there is plenty of evidence that supports the title of “superfood” for blueberries.
For instance, one study found that consuming a cup of blueberries every day lowers blood pressure and reduces stiffness in the arteries. There is also some evidence that consuming a cup of blueberries daily can reduce inflammation and pain caused by varicose veins.
Berries as well as many other brightly colored fruits and vegetables are rich in phytochemicals that are scientifically proven to preserve healthy vascular function while slowing the development of atherosclerosis. This includes flavonoids, which effectively improve blood circulation while strengthening arteries and capillaries and lowering the risk of coronary artery disease.
The phytochemicals in berries can reduce inflammation throughout your body, which is powerful protection for the elasticity in your arteries and veins. The reduction of inflammation also limits your risk of developing diabetes and many other life-altering medical conditions.
Add pomegranate to your diet.
You don’t have to look hard to find this fruit today. It’s commonly used to flavor everything from yogurt to applesauce, and you can find many store-bought juice blends that incorporate it to some extent. While it may seem like just another dietary fad, pomegranates contain polyphenols with powerful antioxidant qualities that help limit the oxidation of cholesterol.
By controlling cholesterol levels, pomegranate can help prevent cholesterol buildup in the arteries. One study also found that pomegranate juice effectively reduces inflammation in patients with type II diabetes. The combination of lower cholesterol levels and less inflammation is the recipe for success when it comes to protecting the elasticity of your arteries.
It’s best to eat pomegranates fresh, and for most people, that means learning how to cut open and deseed the fruit without frustration. When it’s out of season or you don’t have the time to cut it manually, look for frozen pomegranate with no added sugar or flavors. Juice is another option, but watch out for juice blends that contain little pomegranate juice.
Include an avocado in your daily menu.
Avocados are a valuable resource for controlling cholesterol levels and thus lowering your risk of stiff arteries and heart disease. One study found that consuming an avocado daily enhanced the cholesterol-lowering benefits that come from following a moderate-fat diet.
Other research has shown that avocados can stabilize plaque in the arteries while promoting overall vascular health. This comes from the natural vitamin C content, so consuming your avocado with oranges and other fruits rich in vitamin C may enhance your results. Taking a vitamin C supplement may also help, especially if you aren’t able to consume fresh fruit daily.
The amazing thing about avocados is that you don’t need to consume an unrealistic amount to get the health benefits. Consuming at least half of an avocado daily will help keep your arteries and veins strong and flexible, and a whole avocado daily is even better.
Start your day with oatmeal and incorporate oats into your diet when possible.
Consider this the breakfast of champions for its high fiber content and ability to limit cholesterol buildup in the arteries. Oatmeal is also proven to prevent other types of atherosclerotic blockage, improving the functionality of all arteries, big or small. This is important because the benefits extend beyond cholesterol plaque to include other substances known to stiffen the arteries.
There is a lot of research proving a clear connection between the consumption of oats and a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, but results are best when you also limit your consumption of saturated fat. If you don’t enjoy eating oatmeal for breakfast daily, you can add oats to homemade stew or soup or make healthy oatmeal breakfast cookies. Toss some blueberries into those cookies, and your arteries are off to a great start.
Consume fatty fish weekly and take your fish oil supplement daily.
Practically every health and fitness goal will lead you toward salmon, tuna, sardines and other fatty fish, and that includes your vascular health. There is a significant body of research that proves the omega-3 fatty acids contained in these fish products can dramatically reduce the risk of arterial blockage and heart disease. For those already diagnosed with heart disease, consuming omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the impact of the disease while lowering the risk of death.
It is generally recommended that you consume at least two servings of salmon or another fatty fish each week. This can protect your vascular system while reducing your risk of heart disease. If you can’t consume fish twice a week, consider taking a high-quality fish oil supplement daily.
Make sure you are getting quality sleep
Now this recommendation may seem a bit cliché but research is showing that lack of sleep (most of us need a good 8 hours) and especially interrupted sleep is related to loss of artery elasticity. Indeed, more and more heart doctors are now including sleep evaluations when assessing issues with your heart disease, strokes, and other vascular problems.
The biggest issue is sleep apnea or obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Research has found a link between OSA and hypertension, arrthythmias, sudden cardiac death, and even Alzheimers disease…yea, this is serious stuff. Perhaps not surprisingly, researchers have found increased levels of artery stiffness and loss of elasticity with those suffering from OSA.
The way to mitigate OSA is sleeping with continuous positive airway pressure therapy or CPAP machine. The good news is that usage of CPAP for those with OSA improves artery elasticity.
So if you are a snorer, others hear you gasping for breath when sleeping, or you simply find yourself sleepy a lot during the day, talk to your doctor about the possibility of OSA.
Drink green or black tea every day
Research abounds about the healthfulness of drinking tea, especially green tea. In addition of heart disease, drinking tea has been shown to lower your risk for cancer and diabetes. This is because tea is laden with polyphenols – specifically catechins – that are anti-inflammatory and full of antioxidants.
More recent research has found that regular consumption of tea helps prevent arterial stiffness. This particular study compared regular tea drinkers in China (habitually for at least 6 years) with those who don’t regularly consume the beverage. Those who drank tea had lowest levels of artery elasticity loss.
So, if you aren’t drinking tea every day, now is a good time to start! Consider drinking a couple of cups of tea after lunch or substituting your morning coffee with tea on occasion.
The quality of your tea can make a difference too. High quality green teas have the most catechins.
Reduce consumption of substances known to stiffen, weaken or damage your blood vessels.
The easiest way to change your diet is to focus on the foods that are good for your body, but you also need some awareness of substances in our food supply that are damaging to your arteries and veins. These are the same substances that will slow your weight loss progress or make it more difficult to burn fat and build muscle, so let’s take a quick look at them.
- Sodium – We already touched briefly on the damaging impact of high sodium levels when we discussed hydration. It’s also important to know that sodium is linked to high blood pressure and heart disease, so try to keep your consumption below 2,300 mg per day. 1,500 mg per day is even more beneficial.
- Sugar – It’s hard to break dependence on sweet treats and sodas, but research has shown that there is a clear connection between high cholesterol levels and high sugar intake. This can increase your chances of experiencing blocked arteries due to cholesterol buildup, and some scientific studies have suggested an enhanced risk of heart disease for people who consume a lot of sugar.
- Red Meats – Unless you select low-fat cuts, you can expect red meat to increase your fat consumption while allowing your cholesterol levels to get out of control. Many people get constipated from red meat as well, which can lead to straining in the bathroom that restricts your veins and may increase your risk of developing varicose veins.
One Final Tip
As you start implementing these lifestyle changes to improve your vascular health, take the time to explore the medical history of your family members. Many diseases of the heart, veins and arteries have a genetic component, and you’re less likely to become the next victim in line if you take proactive measures to lower your risk.
For instance, if blood clots run in your family, you may not want to take birth control pills because the estrogen may place you at even greater risk. If most of your family members are obese or suffer from heart troubles, you have some powerful motivators to change your diet and keep your body moving daily.