The most obvious ways to improve your cardiovascular health are eating healthfully, being active, and keeping your stress levels down.
Eating healthfully means eating mostly vegetables, fish, and poultry, and cutting out processed carbohydrates and grain-fed red meat.
Exercising regularly is also important, but from a cardiovascular point of view, a lot of moderate aerobic exercise (walking, biking, kayaking) is much better than a little intense exercise (running, high intensity interval training).
Keeping your stress down will add years to your life. While you can’t eliminate all of life’s stresses, you can learn to live around them.
Outside of changing how you go about life, reaching for certain natural ingredients and herbs can help maintain healthy cardiovascular function. A few to consider:
- Hawthorn: Often referred to as a heart tonic, this clinically studied herb has been shown to dilate coronary arteries, improve heart function, and dilate blood vessels, resulting in reduced friction and optimal blood flow. It also promotes optimal conduction of electrical impulses through the heart.
- Resveratrol (Japanese knotweed), French Maritime Pine Bark, Rutin, Hesperidin, and Pomegranate: These potent herbal antioxidants help protect the inner linings of blood vessels from free radicals and maintain blood vessel elasticity. They also inhibit platelet stickiness.
- Krill Oil: Omega-3 fatty acids from marine sources are known to decrease blood viscosity (which improves blood flow) and support optimal vascular function. Krill oil’s omega-3 fatty acids are phospholipids, which are more easily absorbed and integrated into tissues than the triglycerides found in fish oil. Krill also provides astaxanthin, one of the most powerful antioxidants known.
Optimizing Blood Flow
If you’re really serious about cardiovascular fitness, you have to think in terms of blood flow.
Blood does much more than deliver oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from tissues. Blood also cleanses your cells and tissues of damaging pollutants, and, at the same time, bathes your cells and tissues in revitalizing nutrients. How well your blood does this is highly dependent on blood flow.
Anything that impedes blood flow affects the health of cells and tissues.
Optimal blood flow depends on healthy blood vessels and a strong heart, but blood viscosity is possibly the most important factor of all.
Viscosity refers to the thickness and stickiness of blood. If blood were as thin as water, blood flow would never be a problem, but blood is as thick as a milk shake.
Pushing excessively-thick blood through blood vessels backs up pressure in the system and increases work load on the heart. Thick blood rushing through blood vessels also causes friction, especially in narrow, tortuous vessels like coronary arteries (vessels that supply blood to the heart muscle).
Friction is a primary factor that initiates artery damage. Excess friction causes damage to the lining of the artery wall. Damage is intensified by free radicals circulating in the bloodstream — the greater the concentration of free radicals, the more intense the damage.
To control damage, the body lays down platelets and a substance called fibrin to heal the wound, much like a scab if you scraped your skin. This is the first step in plaque formation.
Adding insult to injury, LDL cholesterol becomes imbedded in the wound. As this process is compounded over time, blood flow is constricted and blood vessels lose elasticity (become hardened).
Elasticity of blood vessels is necessary to accommodate pressure changes when the heart pumps. Loss of elasticity in blood vessels causes pressure to back up in the system.
Blood is thickened primarily by red blood cells and other substances carried in blood.
Some people, especially some men, are genetically prone to having high concentrations of red blood cells, and therefore have unnaturally “thick” blood. A routine hemoglobin/hematocrit test (which costs about $5) can tell you if you have this problem. The simple solution is regularly donating blood — yep, old fashioned blood letting.
For the average person, however, the most important “blood thickeners” are saturated fat and lipoprotein particles.
Saturated fat comes primarily eating from red meat and dairy. If you’ve ever tried to mix butter or lard with water, you have a pretty good idea of what it does to your blood. Grain-fed meat and dairy are much higher in fat than grass-fed versions.
Lipoprotein particles actually come from eating carbohydrates. If you eat more carbohydrate than your body can use, your liver turns the excess carbohydrate into fat. The body uses special particles called lipoprotein particles to transport fat through the blood to fat cells where it is stored.
Lipoprotein particles are made from fat, protein, and cholesterol. If you eat a lot of carbohydrates, your body actually makes a lot of cholesterol to create lipoprotein particles. Unless you have a hereditary cholesterol issue, dietary cholesterol is less important than you might think.
There are several varieties of lipoprotein particles, and they all thicken blood, but LDL particles are the most concerning. This is the form of cholesterol that is commonly measured at your doctor’s office.
While measurements of blood viscosity and free radical concentrations in the bloodstream are possibly better indicators of cardiovascular health than LDL cholesterol levels, these tests are still not widely available and have not yet been completely standardized.
Other Flow Variables
Aside from blood viscosity, circulating free radicals are the most damaging force affecting blood vessels. Damaging free radicals come primarily from processed food products, fried food, and organic toxins. Toxins come from many sources, but the most concerning toxins come from smoking cigarettes.
Free radical damage is compounded by inactivity and stress.
Though it would seem that inactivity would require less vigorous blood flow, and therefore would reduce damage done by friction, it doesn’t work that way. Being sedentary allows greater buildup of toxins and free radicals, which ultimately increases blood vessel damage.
Being sedentary is often associated with a stressful lifestyle. Stress increases adrenaline. Adrenaline increases heart rate. Increased heart rate without increased activity raises pressure in the cardiovascular system, which also increases friction and damage.
Stress is also associated with increased platelet “stickiness.” This interesting phenomenon really makes sense when you think about it. The stress response is the same thing as the “fight or flight” response that would be associated with confronting a threat such as a tiger. If you were slashed by a tiger, you would want your blood to clot faster — sticky platelets are necessary for clotting blood.
So, if you sit in front of a computer all day stressing over work, take smoke breaks instead of exercise breaks, live off of processed fast food, and get your entertainment from emotionally-charged television shows, you’re automatically a cardiovascular time bomb — even good genes will not save you.
Primary variables for blood flow:
- Blood viscosity
- Red blood concentration (genetic)
- Saturated fat (red meat and dairy)
- Lipoprotein particles (carbohydrates)
- Free radical concentrations in bloodstream (processed food products & toxins)
- Platelet stickiness
- Activity level
- Stress level
1. Alkan FA et al. The evaluation of plasma viscosity and endothelial dysfunction in smoking individuals. Clin Hemorheol Microcirc. 2014;58(3):403-13.
2. Sloop G et al. The role of chronic hyperviscosity in vascular disease. Ther Adv Cardiovasc Dis. 2015 Feb;9(1):19-25.
3. Duyuler PT et al. Evaluation of Whole Blood Viscosity in Patients with Aortic Sclerosis. J Tehran Heart Cent. 2017 Jan;12(1):6-10.
4. Soulis JV et al. Low Density Lipoprotein and Non-Newtonian Oscillating Flow Biomechanical Parameters for Normal Human Aorta. Cardiol Res. 2016 Apr;7(2):66-79.
5. Song SK et al. Whole blood viscosity was elevated in patients with both hypertension and acute coronary syndrome. J Hypertens. 2016 Sep;34.
6. Furukawa K et al. Increased Blood Viscosity in Ischemic Stroke Patients with Small Artery Occlusion Measured by an Electromagnetic Spinning Sphere Viscometer. J Stroke Cerebrovasc Dis. 2016 Nov;25(11):2762-2769.
7. Yeom E et al. Microfluidics for simultaneous quantification of platelet adhesion and blood viscosity. Sci Rep. 2016 Apr 27;6:24994.
8. Tripolino C et al. Association between blood viscosity and common carotid artery elasticity. Clin Hemorheol Microcirc. 2016;62(1):55-62.
9. Alexy T et al. Abnormal blood rheology and chronic low grade inflammation: possible risk factors for accelerated atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease in Lewis negative subjects. Atherosclerosis. 2015 Mar;239(1):248-51.
10. Li Y et al. Association between whole blood viscosity and arterial stiffness in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Endocrine. 2015 May;49(1):148-54.
11. Burri L, Johnsen L. Krill products: an overview of animal studies. Nutrients. 2015 May 7;7(5):3300-21.
12. Cottin SC, Sanders TA, Hall WL. The differential effects of EPA and DHA on cardiovascular risk factors. Proc Nutr Soc. 2011 May;70(2):215-31.
13. Visioli F, Artaria C. Astaxanthin in cardiovascular health and disease: mechanisms of action, therapeutic merits, and knowledge gaps. Food Funct. 2017 Jan 25;8(1):39-63.
14. Kishimoto Y, Yoshida H, Kondo K. Potential Anti-Atherosclerotic Properties of Astaxanthin. Mar Drugs. 2016 Feb 5;14(2). pii: E35.
15. Rodrigues E, Mariutti LR, Mercadante AZ. Scavenging capacity of marine carotenoids against reactive oxygen and nitrogen species in a membrane-mimicking system. Mar Drugs. 2012 Aug;10(8):1784-98. Epub 2012 Aug 20.
16. Fassett RG, Coombes JS. Astaxanthin in cardiovascular health and disease. Molecules. 2012 Feb 20;17(2):2030-48.
17. Kidd P. Astaxanthin, cell membrane nutrient with diverse clinical benefits and anti-aging potential. Altern Med Rev. 2011 Dec;16(4):355-64.
18. Riccioni G et al. Marine carotenoids and cardiovascular risk markers. Mar Drugs. 2011;9(7):1166-75.
19. Demaison L, Moreau D. Dietary n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and coronary heart disease-related mortality: a possible mechanism of action. Cell Mol Life Sci. 2002 Mar;59(3):463-77.
20. Simopoulos AP. Essential fatty acids in health and chronic disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Sep;70(3 Suppl):560S-569S.
21. Kimura S et al. Docosahexaenoic acid inhibits blood viscosity in stroke-prone spontaneously hypertensive rats. Res Commun Mol Pathol Pharmacol. 1998 Jun;100(3):351-61.
22. Kawabata F et al. Supplementation with eicosapentaenoic acid-rich fish oil improves exercise economy and reduces perceived exertion during submaximal steady-state exercise in normal healthy untrained men. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2014;78(12):2081-8.