What you need to know about circulation in winter

In the first of a monthly series by Dr Sarah Brewer looks at how to keep your circulation healthy during the cold months of the year.
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What is poor circulation?

Your circulation is a transport system that supplies every part of your body with blood, oxygen and nutrients as well as carrying away waste products for excretion. Poor circulation becomes increasingly common with age and can lead to cold, painful extremities, swollen ankles and, in some cases, fluid building up on the lungs, with symptoms such as fatigue, breathlessness and palpitations.

There are three main causes of poor circulation:

  • Hardening and furring up of the arteries, which reduces the delivery of oxygen-rich blood and nutrients to cells
  • Varicose veins, which are less able to drain away excess fluid and wastes from the lower legs
  • Heart failure in which weakened heart muscle is unable to pump blood around the body as efficiently as it should.

Why does it happen?

Hardening and furring up of the arteries (atherosclerosis) is strongly linked with increasing age, smoking, lack of exercise and eating an unhealthy diet that contains too much sugar and fat and too few antioxidants from fruit and vegetables. It is more likely in those with uncorrected high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, obesity and poorly controlled diabetes.

Cold weather can worsen a poor circulation by causing blood vessels to go into spasm, especially in the fingers and toes. This can lead to chilblains (itchy, purple areas of inflammation), painful splits in the skin, and Raynaud’s syndrome in which small arteries constrict in response to the cold. This reduces blood flow to fingers and toes which go white with numbness and tingling. As sluggish blood flow returns, the digits go blue, then bright red with pain and burning.

Varicose veins form when non-return valves in the long veins of the legs give way, causing bulging, tortuous veins, aching and dragging sensations, swelling of the ankles and itching. This can result from pregnancy, obesity, standing for long periods or can be hereditary.

Heart failure can develop in people with narrowed coronary arteries, high blood pressure or following a heart attack.

moderate exercise

Can you prevent it?

To help keep your circulation youthful, follow a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet containing olive oil, garlic, nuts, seeds, fish and plenty of fruit and vegetables.

Cut back on salt intake to help maintain a lower blood pressure and reduce the rate of atherosclerosis.

Keep alcohol intake within recommended levels and, if you smoke, do your utmost to stop.

Maintain a healthy weight and take regular exercise, especially walking, as contraction of leg muscles boosts blood flow through your lower limbs by up to a third.

Avoid standing still for long periods of time, which encourages blood to pool in the legs.

If you have varicose veins, wear support stockings or tights to reduce swelling and discomfort. Keep your feet up as much as possible to reduce ankle swelling.

Keep extremities warm during cold weather with gloves, ankle warmers, hat and scarf.

Omega 3-rich supplement

What supplements can help?

If you don’t eat one or two servings of oily fish per week (eg salmon, sardines, herrings, mackerel) consider an omega-3 fish oil supplement. Omega 3 fish oil has a useful blood thinning effect to improve circulation.

Folic acid helps to lower blood levels of a harmful amino acid, homocysteine, which can damage artery linings and hasten atherosclerosis; vitamins B12 and B6 also have a beneficial effect.

Garlic tablets promote dilation of small arteries in the skin and was found to increase blood circulation through skin capillaries by as much as 55% compared with placebo.[i]

Ginkgo biloba improves blood flow to the peripheries and, in one study, taking standardized extracts for 10 weeks reduced the number of attacks or Raynaud’s syndrome  by 56% compared with 27% in those taking placebo.[ii]

Magnesium has a relaxing effect on blood vessels and can reduce spasm of smooth muscles in artery walls. Some studies have found that circulating magnesium levels are lower after exposure to cold in women with Raynaud’s compared to those without.  Soak in a bath with magnesium salts.[iii]

Pycnogenol (French Maritime Pine extracts) can improve circulation and reduce ankle swelling. For people with varicose veins, Pycnogenol antioxidants improve vein elasticity and decrease stretching and swelling. [iv]

Coenzyme Q10 helps to improve oxygen processing in cells when circulation is poor. In people with heart failure, clinical trials suggest that coenzyme Q10 can improve heart contraction.  Try, Healthspan Ubiquinol Max which includes coenzyme Q10, magnesium, omega-3 fish oil, and vitamins E, B1 and C for heart and energy support.

Turmeric and ginger have warming, anti-inflammatory actions that may reduce symptoms of chilblains and Raynaud’s syndrome.

Hawthorn also increases the strength and efficiency of the heart’s pumping action.[v]  E.g. A.Vogel Crataegus Drops.

NB: Always seek medical advice if you have persistent poor circulation, cramping or pain. If you are taking any prescribed medications, talk to your doctor before taking supplements and check for interactions.

About the author

Dr Sarah Brewer studied medicine at Cambridge University and was a practicing GP for many years. She is now a leading health /medical writer, the author of over 60 books and acts as the Medical Director of Healthspan in Guernsey.


Images: Older couple walking – pasja1000 from Pixabay; Omega 3 capsule – Pietro Jeng ; Exercise class – Gabriel Santos Fotografia  both Pexels.

Last modified: June 10, 2021

Written by 4:34 pm Health