As the cooler weather sets in, even cooler hands and feet start being noticed when shaking hands or hugging – or even climbing into bed! Apart from the usual thick socks, rubbing hands together vigorously or holding hot cups of tea, what else can you do to boost your circulation and warm up those icy extremities?
1. Stop Smoking
It’s never too late to quit! Every day that you don’t smoke, every part of your body benefits – including your red blood cells, blood vessels, lungs and heart, all of which contribute to how you react to cold. Even if you’ve been smoking for years, the negative effects can be reversed and you start to experience benefits from as little as 20 minutes after you stop smoking as heart rate and blood pressure drop and return to normal! In only 12 hours, the body clears excess carbon monoxide, which blocks your lungs and heart from carrying oxygen, increasing your whole body’s oxygen supply. One day after quitting, these increased oxygen levels and lower blood pressure make physical activity and exercise easier, which in turn improve blood flow. Lung start to heal after a month and will have significantly healed by nine months – most people notice their ability to breathe, exercise and feel good improved from about three months after quitting.
People over 65 are more likely to have iron-poor diets, be taking blood thinners or have kidney problems resulting in trouble making red blood cells or processing protein rich foods. Even if you’re not pumping iron at the gym each day, you should at least make sure your dietary intake is adequate. Ideally, consume plenty of iron rich foods every day – and not just red meat! Eat a variety of iron rich foods such as legumes (including lentils, chickpeas and beans), tofu and tempeh, nuts and seeds, whole-grains and iron-fortified cereals, and leafy green veggies such as spinach, silverbeet, asparagus and broccoli or dried fruit such as prunes and raisins. The fruit and vegetables will also help supply Vitamin C, which is necessary to properly absorb iron from food. If you struggle with solid foods, then an iron supplement may be a great alternative during the cold season when your body needs it more. Look for an easily absorbable form that does not cause constipation, and take 2 hours before or after other medications (especially thyroid medications, antibiotics, some antidepressant drugs, calcium or fibre supplements).
There are a number of herbs that improve circulation, but which herb is right for you depends on what you need to address. Some herbs works as blood thinners to keep blood flowing smoothly [such as ginger (Zingiber officinale) or willow bark (Salix alba)], decreasing venous pooling [such as bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) or butchers’ broom (Ruscus aculeatus)], others relax and stabilise blood vessels to allow more blood through [such as hawthorn (Crataegus spp), Ginkgo biloba, or cayenne (Capsicum annuum)]. ‘Warming’ herbs [such as ginger or black pepper (Piper nigrum)] are well known for bringing blood to the capillaries and can be taken internally as teas or tonics, or externally as creams or balms. Herbs rich in antioxidants and other active phytochemicals [such as turmeric (Curcuma longa) and gotu kola (Centella asiatica)] protect blood vessels from damage, strengthen connective tissue and decrease inflammation.
Everyone benefits from daily gentle exercise! A daily walk or cycle outside in the sunshine (ideally early morning or late afternoon and with someone else, because you’re more likely to reach your goals, rather than make excuses, if you’ve got support) boosts circulation by raising your heart rate for a short time and making muscles work to keep them strong and effective. For those with joint problems, an indoor heated pool is perfect – water walking is a great gentle resistance exercise that gets the heart going, but while completely supporting your body and minimising falls risks. If you have limited mobility, then chair yoga, air boxing or using a small stationary pedaller can keep your blood moving. Even sitting down to watch TV can be turned in to an active opportunity to improve circulation – start by air boxing or pedalling during one advertisement (usually 20-30sec), then over time slowly build to as many ads as you can!
Exercise outside has more than one benefit – apart from warming up freezing hands and noses, a session in the sun produces Vitamin D. Vitamin D is an essential component of healthy heart tissue, blood vessels, bones and hormones, including repair of damaged blood vessels! Vit D deficiency is considered to be a global problem, with between 50% and 100% of older adults low in Vit D (depending on location, season, age bracket and background). The most common causes are reduced production due to aging and environmental factors, but reduced intake of food sources contributes as well. You can make most of your required Vit D by exposing your skin to 15-30min of bright morning or late afternoon sunshine every day – midday sunshine may be tolerable in winter, but should be avoided in Australian summers due to extreme heat. You should aim to eat a daily portion of Vit D rich foods, such as fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel), beef liver, eggs or fortified dairy, juice or cereals, or consider taking a supplement during times when getting sunshine is harder than usual – Vit D3 (or cholecalciferol) is the same form that your body makes.
Remember, before starting any new exercise regime, herbs or supplements, check with your qualified health practitioner to maximise health benefits and minimise risks, especially if you are taking any medication or are recovering from injury or illness.