Many of these vasodilator foods are said to improve blood flow by stimulating the body’s production of nitric oxide, a compound that relaxes the tiny muscles in our blood vessels and causes them to dilate. Foods that contain ACE inhibitors, which include tomatoes and ginger, may also help improve circulation by counteracting the effects of enzymes that constrict blood vessels.
- Maggie Michalczyk, RDN, registered dietitian and recipe developer
Maintaining good circulation, of course, is essential to our health. Blood supplies the oxygen and nutrients that keep all of our organs and muscles functioning properly. And, as blood flows through our veins and arteries, it also removes carbon dioxide and other waste products from the body.
Poor circulation, on the other hand, is often associated with tingling and muscle cramps. It can also manifest as cold hands and feet, which made us wonder: By getting our blood flowing better, can vasodilator foods also make us feel warmer inside? It’s a tantalizing proposition during the winter months, but Chicago-based dietitian Maggie Michalczyk, MS, RD of Once Upon a Pumpkin, is skeptical that these foods have any significant effect on body temperature, and research on vasodilator foods is limited to begin with.
“While eating foods that help with vasodilation will help improve blood flow to your muscles, you won't necessarily feel warmer just from eating them,” Michalczyk says.
The reason, explains Michalczyk, is that there are numerous other factors that can impact blood circulation and cause you to feel cold, and any benefits you might experience from vasodilator foods is unlikely to be enough to mitigate such factors. Conditions like type 2 diabetes and Raynaud’s disease and the side effects of some medications, for example, can impede blood flow and lead to cold hands and feet.
Michalczyk says that always feeling cold may also be indicative of a deficiency in B vitamins, especially vitamin B12, which is associated with low energy levels. “If you were a little bit deficient in the B vitamins, just eating some of these [vasodilator] foods really is not going to fix that,” she affirms. “If you are noticing that you're constantly cold, it would be smart to get a blood test—especially if you haven't seen your doctor in a while. That would be the best path to figuring out both what's going on with your circulation and finding an actual physician-backed solution for it."
That being said, even if you may still need to reach for a pair of thick socks or curl up under your heated blanket after having a meal full of vasodilator foods, Michalczyk still recommends consuming these ingredients on a regular basis, because they're all extremely nutrient-dense foods. “Gotta throw on a sweater and still eat these things,” she muses. Many vasodilator foods also have anti-inflammatory properties and are rich in antioxidants, so what's not to love?
“The good news about these foods is that they're pretty simple to incorporate into your everyday meal and snacks,” says Michalczyk. “Maybe that's aiming to eat fish twice a week for dinner. Berries are super simple to incorporate into yogurt, oatmeal, or just a snack. With leafy greens, it’s as simple as putting them into a smoothie, incorporating them into a salad, or just adding a handful to a stir fry.”
You may not notice any changes in your body temperature after consuming these foods, but you can be comforted that you’re helping to keep your heart, brain, and immune system healthy. “Even if you're not necessarily feeling warmer from these foods, you're getting that benefit of blood pressure control, which is hopefully helping to prevent future disease,” says Michalczyk.
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