Does Great Skin Start in the Blood? The Role of Circulation in Skin Health

by Kristina Holey

 

Intro from Marie Veronique:

All of us experience puffy eyes in the morning sometimes, but what if it happens every morning, even when you haven’t been boozing it up the night before? There are other related symptoms that, if you experience them regularly, may indicate a common underlying issue: frequent sweating, cold hands and feet, bloating and constipation, menstrual cramping or clotting, headaches and dizziness when standing quickly, and anxiety attacks, to name a few. The skin may also flush easily, take a long time to heal, show signs of premature aging such as sagging and poor skin tone, or be prone to breakouts or bouts of eczema or other dermatitis issues. 

Varied as these symptoms seem on the surface, they may all stem from one cause: poor circulation. If that’s the case, you are one of the lucky ones. Symptoms such as these can be alleviated by addressing issues with your circulatory system, which, when resolved, will improve the overall condition of the body. And as your health improves so does your appearance! For example, drinking more water supports the kidneys and reduces the appearance of swollen eyes. (Kristina can tell you I am not a water drinker, but I tried this and it works! The French rule of thumb is to drink as much water as you do wine during a meal, glass for glass.) Additionally, eating more iron-rich food during menstruation helps minimize breakouts. 

Read this fascinating blog post to learn more about the circulatory system through the lens of both Western and Chinese medicine modalities, and be sure to try out some of her suggestions for improving your own circulation. Kristina — my question for you is, is poor circulation related to hair loss, and if so is there anything you suggest for thinning hair/bald spots? I am asking for a friend. 

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When most people think of the circulatory system, high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks are the first things that come to mind. And those are indeed common issues! However, there’s much more to it — maintaining good circulation has benefits that go far beyond avoiding blood and heart-related illnesses. My practice is focused on skin health, and as we’ll see, there is a direct correlation between healthy circulation and healthy skin. But before we get into that, let’s take a moment to understand how the circulatory system functions, and how it is connected with all the different systems that keep our body functioning optimally.

The Circulatory System: What it Does and Why it’s Important

The simplest explanation of the circulatory system is that its purpose is to move blood through the body via the heart and blood vessels (arteries, veins, and capillaries). The blood carries oxygen and nutrients to our cells for nourishment and energy and also transports waste and carbon dioxide away from our them as part of the detoxification process. This cellular waste then goes to the kidneys to be filtered and removed and the carbon dioxide gets exhaled via the lungs. 

The circulatory system is composed of two distinct systems: the cardiovascular circulatory system and the lymphatic circulatory system. The cardiovascular system carries the blood to keep your body functioning. It also does the job of removing toxins from your organs and blood, which keep you feeling good and healthy, and regulating your internal temperature, or heat balance.  

Your lymphatic circulatory system (which relies completely on movement to stimulate its flow) functions directly with your cardiovascular system to keep blood and lymphatic fluid levels in balance, and to flush toxins out of the body. It is responsible for carrying lymph, a fluid that carries immune cells and helps your body fight against pathogens such as viruses.

 

Here are some examples of how the circulatory system interacts with other bodily systems:

  • The Digestive System: Our circulation relies on nutrients pulled from the digestive system after we digest/assimilate our foods. These nutrients are precursors for hormone production as well as healthy skin function and repair. 
  • The Respiratory System: We inhale air via the lungs to provide oxygen for the blood and then the blood brings carbon dioxide waste back for the lungs to exhale. Shallow breathing makes us feel light headed and fatigued, and impacts the nervous system. 
  • The Muscular System: Our muscles require oxygen to move, and that includes the heart muscle, which pumps the blood. The digestive system also uses muscles to transport food through the organs (stomach/intestines).
  • The Skeletal System: Our bones make new red blood cells, which carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. 
  • The Nervous System: All of our tissues and organs — including the skin, which is OUR LARGEST ORGAN — require signals from the nervous system to function. Temperature regulation is a good example of the partnership between the nervous system and our circulation. 

The Circulatory System and Skin Health

So how does this apply to skin health? It took me years of working closely with TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) practitioners Dr. Anna Gold and Justine Wenger to grasp the importance of circulation in skin function. I had to expand from thinking about it solely from an anatomical perspective to incorporate their theory around blood and movement quality. However it didn’t really click until I began to think of the blood traveling through our veins in terms of consistency — thick and viscous vs. thin or wispy. The consistency of the blood is what helps define its movement as fast vs. slow, or stagnant vs. efficient. 

You see, when the blood in your body is slow, viscous, and efficient, your circulation is healthy; it moves well through your system and flushes/restores/repairs all tissues and organ function. It also calms your nervous system. Whereas when the blood is slippery and quick, the level of benefit it can provide to the entire body decreases, which can result in multiple deficiencies, anxiety and other symptoms of depletion. 

“Being deficient in blood (symptomatic, or even anemic) can lead to issues with circulation, and less blood reaching all areas of the body and properly supporting all systems,” says Justine. “Quality and movement of blood can be influenced by many external and internal factors, and our greatest impact on the blood system is nourishment/diet (iron-rich foods, herbs, supplementation) and physical movement (exercise, stimulation).” 

Grasping this concept and applying it to how the circulatory system impacts the skin (and how we are feeling on a daily basis!) has helped me tremendously. If we understand that the skin is a pathway of elimination for the body consisting of blood-rich tissues filled with various receptors that works in close conjunction with other major systems (digestion, immune, hormonal, nervous), then it follows that circulation (and blood consideration) is critical to maintaining optimal body function. 

 

A few examples of how poor circulation leads to symptomatic skin:

  • When someone has compromised blood flow, the waste removal system and healing process will also be weakened. Therefore there will be an increased risk of inflammation within the skin and an increased vulnerability to unwanted symptoms such as breakouts or eczema. If there is barrier deficiency or even a wound, the lack of proper nutrient delivery to the skin results in an inability to repair itself.
  • Improper organ function (e.g. stagnation in the gut or lungs) can lead to excess bacteria and other pathogens. These pathogens are then readily absorbed and circulated in the bloodstream and lymphatic channels and can opportunistically migrate out of the blood/lymph vessels and into the tissues, causing symptoms such as breakouts or rashes. Without proper detoxification by the circulatory system, the removal of these pathogens is decreased and risk of infection is increased. 
  • Blood flow also delivers nutrients that include antioxidants to ward off pathogens. Deficient blood lacks crucial nutrients to defend and protect the skin, which can result in premature aging. Additionally, insufficiently oxygenated blood can appear more blue, which leads to dark circles around the eyes. It can also result in compromised kidney function, which leads to puffy eyes or “bags.”
  • Excess internal heat from poor diet, digestive issues, or overworking/deficient organs can result in “hot blood,” which causes skin flushing and rashes. For example, someone with excess internal heat could appear very red after exercising. This is because not only does our circulatory system cool the body, but it also stimulates the process of sweating and the dilation of the arterioles in the dermis that release excess heat from the blood. Therefore the more heat, the more redness there will be. 
  • Anemia or iron-deficient blood can result in fatigue, anxiety, muscle pain, pale skin tone, loss of appetite, irregularities in heart function, and more. This deficiency is not always from improper diet however, and can be the result of inflammatory conditions in the gut that cause blood loss and malabsorption of nutrients (Crohn's, colitis, celiac disease, etc.) as well as hormonal imbalances (heavy periods or fibroids) and autoimmune conditions (rheumatoid arthritis). According to physician, midwife, and herbalist Aviva Romm, in cases of autoimmunity, the body is actually taking the iron out and putting it into storage. Dr. Romm has an informative and unique approach to women’s health, medicine, and healing.

 

Improved Circulation = Improved Quality of Life

The great thing about promoting healthy circulation is that it always makes you feel better. The correlation between it and our overall sense of wellbeing cannot be underestimated. For example, why does going for a walk when you are stressed make you feel more relaxed and capable? Why does moving when we’re experiencing pain from menstrual cramps, headache, fatigue and other issues often reduce their impact? All of it boils down to circulation. (Of course, there are always disclaimers to consider—sometimes the best thing to do is to lie down and allow the body to rest and recover.) 

 

Here are a few of my favorite ways to promote good circulation:

  1. Increase your water intake. Water makes up a large part of blood volume; because it is constantly being filtered by the kidneys and eliminated, it’s critical to continuously replace it. There is no set recommended amount as it depends on your activity level, diet, build and so forth, but shoot to drink 1/2 your body weight in ounces every day, and when you feel sluggish, try to notice whether you are actually tired or just thirsty. I suggest drinking most of your water away from meal times so that it doesn’t interfere with the digestive process. 
  2. Move and breathe with regular exercise to stimulate the lymphatic system and get the heart pumping. Note that harder or more intense exercise is not always better. Slow, restorative practices such as yoga, stretching, self-massage and walking are great options and can offer even more benefits than high intensity exercise for some. If it feels good, you can add in short spurts of intense exercise such as rebounding, jump roping, or even holding a plank pose to get the benefits without over-exhausting or injuring the body. While taking a walk or hike, think about taking deep belly breaths, as this stimulates lymphatic drainage and also promotes strong circulatory flow. The type of movement that is best for you depends on your lifestyle. For example if you are spending all day in front of the computer, make sure you incorporate many instances of movement throughout the day to get your heart and blood pumping, and make time for stretching to counter the long periods of sitting. Instead of getting all your exercise in with one morning spin class, for some it might be better to take a few 30 minute walks and stretching periods throughout your work day. I tend to think that exercise should always be a dynamic and thoughtful activity that you choose based on your current stress levels, hormones, diet, etc. 
  3. Be strategic about your diet—make sure it contains whole foods with good fats, B vitamins, and iron. Vitamin B3 (niacinamide/niacin) gives the blood a boost, improving circulation along with other B vitamins such as B12 and iron, which provide elements that build “strong” blood. Good fats containing essential fatty acids (EFA’s) can help cool the blood and facilitate healthy flow. Examples: eggs, shellfish/fish, chicken, turkey, pork, beef, mushrooms, brown rice, peanuts, avocados, peas, beans, dark leafy greens (paired with lemon or Vitamin c), and dairy (though avoid combining dairy with iron rich foods as that can decrease absorption). Supplements from high quality brands can be very helpful in the short term if dietary restrictions are essential. 
  4. Use hot and cold therapy. I love saunas (both Swedish and infrared) and swimming in cold oceans. Saunas increase the internal temperature, stimulating the body to sweat and detoxify (not to mention the impact on biofilms which we will discuss in a future post), increasing circulation throughout. (Even better, add a dry brushing session pre-sauna to get the fluids flowing.) After a sauna, or whenever you can, take a cold shower. When you are exposed to a sudden stream (or plunge) of cold water, it causes blood to circulate quickly to maintain ideal body temperature. Additionally, being exposed to extreme temperatures/the shock of the cold water tonifies the nervous system/stress response and boosts immune function. If you don’t have access to a sauna or ocean, a bath or shower works just as well. One quick trick I do all the time when I am feeling fatigued is just running water over my wrists and switching from hot to cold for a few minutes. 

 

We may not know exactly why our eyes are puffy in the morning or why we always break out after our period, but developing a better understanding of the relationships between our various bodily systems provides us an opportunity to not only become more aware of the messages our body is sending us, but to gain holistic insight into our overall state of health. As we do this, we can continue to troubleshoot and identify ways we can support the body throughout all of its intricate processes to support a strong, symptom-free body.

 


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