At about three pounds, your brain is one of your heaviest organs and the most oxygen-demanding. Just because you breathe doesn’t mean your brain is getting enough oxygen. While it may be getting enough oxygen to survive, it may not be getting enough to function at its peak. In fact, vascular dementia is the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease and is due to poor blood flow to the brain. In studies on brain degeneration, one of the criteria as to whether brain function is improving or diminishing is the rate at which the brain is getting blood or oxygen.
Why is strong blood flow to the brain important? Because your blood carries everything neurons need to work – glucose, oxygen, nutrients, hormones and neurotransmitters. Insufficient blood flow to the brain is a key risk factor for neurodegeneration, and even if you're not worried about protecting your brain as you get older, low oxygenation is proven to negatively impact cognitive performance in the here-and-now.
Causes & Symptoms of Low Brain Oxygen
Primary causes of impaired brain circulation and thus low oxygenation of your brain tissue include:
- Being sedentary. If you sit all day, you’re probably used to that fuzzy mental feeling at the end of the day; this is a symptom of low brain oxygen. Whenever overall blood flow in the body is reduced, as it often is with our modern sedentary lifestyles, the tissues that are farthest from the heart are hardest hit. These are the hands, feet and brain, and unfortunately, peripheral circulation to your brain doesn't have gravity working for it as in the case of your hands and feet. If you typically have cold hands and feet like myself, this is a sign that your peripheral circulation could use improvement. You can also test your peripheral circulation by looking at your capillary refill time – when you push on one of your fingernails, it should instantly return to its pink color once the pressure is taken off. If you have impaired peripheral blood flow the pink color will return more slowly, or the nail beds were never pink to begin with.
- Smoking and poor lung function. Smoking causes your blood vessels to constrict and contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries, drastically reducing circulation to peripheral tissues in particular.
- Poor posture. Drawing the shoulders forward and caving in the chest, which is how many of us sit at our computers for long stretches at a time, can restrict the flow of oxygen to the brain.
- Blood pressure disorders. Both high and low blood pressure can decrease circulation to the brain.
- Stress. Stress not only causes shallow breathing and constriction of blood vessels, negatively impacting circulation and oxygenation generally, but keeping your body in a state of fight-or-flight also causes it to shunt most of its blood supply (and hence oxygen) to the limbs, heart and lungs.
If you’re dealing with low brain endurance or poor focus, you may want to consider working on improving circulation to your brain.
Increasing Brain Circulation and Oxygenation
Thankfully, there are several simple strategies available to improve blood flow to your brain. Working these into your daily life sets a strong foundation for lifelong brain health.
Exercise: aerobic exercise releases endothelial Nitric Oxide Synthase (eNOS), an enzyme that causes blood vessels to dilate, which improves circulation and literally dissolves built-up plaque on the arterial walls. eNOS improves glucose uptake by your cells and activates energy in the brain for hours, as many of us have experienced. To create the best environment for eNOS release, push up your heart rate to the point where you want to stop, and then a little further. The harder and longer you push yourself without injuring yourself, the greater the eNOS response. Alternating stretches of rigorous effort with more relaxed movement (known as HIIT, or high intensity interval training) in particular has been shown to have beneficial effects on brain health.
Yogic inversions: headstands are great, but simply elevating your feet above your head is all you need. Try a shoulder stand or just putting your legs up against a wall
Deep breathing / pranayama: breathe into your abdomen
Massage: that feeling of tension in our shoulders and neck is not only uncomfortable but can constrict blood vessels in those areas and compromise oxygenation of the brain. Another reason to book that massage! Giving yourself a head massage is also a great way to improve brain circulation.