By Deane Alban
Your brain is only 2% of your total body weight, yet receives 15 to 20% of the total blood supply. (1)
There’s a lot going on up there, so your brain requires a disproportionate amount of energy and nutrients.
A steady flow of blood delivers life-giving oxygen plus glucose, vitamins, amino acids, minerals, and other nutrients your brain needs to survive and thrive.
Brain blood circulation also carries away things your brain doesn’t need such as carbon dioxide, toxins, and metabolic waste products.
The blood supply keeps your brain hydrated — critical since your brain is over 70% water. (2)
It brings your brain the hormones and neurotransmitter it needs to function and keeps your brain at a constant temperature and pH. (3)
To do all this, one liter of blood flows through the 400 miles of blood vessels in your brain every minute! (4)
But when circulation is restricted, brain cells suffer and can even die.
There’s solid evidence that reduced cerebral blood flow puts you at risk for brain disorders like vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Clearly, maintaining sufficient blood circulation to the brain is of utmost importance to brain health.
Symptoms of Poor Blood Flow to the Brain
Common symptoms of inadequate flow to the brain include brain fog, mental fatigue, dizziness, light-headedness, memory loss, and frequent headaches. (5, 6)
Harvard researcher Dr. Datis Kharrazian, author of Why Isn’t My Brain Working?, looks for these signs of impaired cerebral blood flow in his patients:
- poor focus and concentration
- relying on caffeine or exercise to kick brain into gear
- unhealthy nails — fungus or white nail beds (they should be pink)
- cold nose, feet, and hands
- needing to wear socks to bed
- cramping in feet and hands
A do-it-yourself test he recommends is to press firmly on a fingernail for a few seconds and release.
It should instantly turn from white to pink.
If not, this is a sign of decreased circulation.
When circulation is reduced, areas farthest from the heart — hands, feet, and brain — are hit the hardest.
But unlike your hands and feet, your brain doesn’t have the benefit of gravity to help!
A rule of thumb is that if circulation to your extremities is inadequate, it will almost certainly be inadequate to your brain as well.
Serious Symptoms of Restricted Blood Flow to the Brain
Vertebrobasilar circulatory disorders are diseases characterized by low blood flow to the back of the brain. (7)
They are most commonly caused by stroke, brain injury, or hardening of the arteries.
Symptoms include changes in vision, slurred speech, lack of coordination, muscle weakness, headache, unsteady gait, and numbness or tingling in the face or extremities. (8)
If you experience these symptoms, especially if their onset is sudden, don’t take chances.
Call your doctor or 911 immediately.
Seriously impaired cerebral circulation can lead to brain damage and even death. (9)
Causes and Risk Factors for Impaired Blood Flow to the Brain
Diminished blood circulation can be caused by factors that range from ridiculously simple to quite serious.
They generally fall into two main categories — lifestyle habits or underlying health conditions.
How the Modern Lifestyle Impedes Brain Circulation
The modern lifestyle wreaks havoc on blood flow to the brain.
According to a study of more than one million adults, a sedentary lifestyle is as hazardous to your health as smoking. (10)
Sitting for long periods has been linked to a cluster of conditions, including excess body fat and high blood pressure, that negatively impact circulation. (11)
Physical inactivity is bad for your overall circulation, but sitting hunched over a computer all day with your shoulders curled forward specifically restricts blood flow to the brain.
Men, if you must wear a necktie, make sure it’s not tied too tight.
Yes, this has been studied and found to impede blood flow to the head. (12)
If you chug coffee or energy drinks during the workday, be aware that caffeine decreases blood flow to the brain by constricting blood vessels. (13, 14)
Smoking deals a double whammy.
Not only does it reduce the flow of blood to the brain, it also decreases the amount of available oxygen. (15)
Being overweight puts you at higher risk for poor brain circulation.
Considering that three-quarters of all Americans are considered overweight or obese, this impacts a lot of people. (16)
Dealing with chronic stress is a disaster for overall health and the health of your brain.
Stress triggers the fight-or-flight response.
This stress response prepares you to deal with danger by initiating a cascade of physiological reactions.
Your heart rate increases, your digestion shuts down, and blood flow is shunted to muscles — away from the brain.
Underlying Health Conditions That Increase Risk for Low Cerebral Blood Flow
Both physical and psychological health conditions can affect brain circulation.
You’re at increased risk for reduced blood flow to the brain if you have heart disease, hypothyroidism, diabetes, anemia, abnormal blood pressure, or depression, or have suffered a brain injury or traumatic stress. (17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22)
It’s well known that high blood pressure is dangerous and increases the risk of stroke, but low blood pressure is generally regarded as unproblematic.
But this is untrue — when blood pressure is low, your blood literally can’t make its way into your brain to feed your neurons. (23)
This inevitably affects brain function and increases your risk for neurodegenerative disorders.
Increase Cerebral Blood Flow with Exercise
If you want to improve your cerebral blood flow, getting regular physical exercise should be your #1 priority.
Physical exercise may be the single most important thing you can do for the health and function of your brain. (24)
The best exercise to get blood flowing is any exercise that you enjoy enough to actually doregularly.
Any exercise that gets your heart pumping is good, but exercise doesn’t have to be overly strenuous.
Both walking and yoga are excellent options.
The best yoga poses for increasing circulation to the brain are inversion poses — those that have your head below your heart.
A simple and effective inversion that even beginners can do is the “downward dog pose” as seen in this image.
You’ll find instructions on doing this pose, even if you aren’t very flexible, at Yoga15.com.
They’ve also included instructions on an easier, modified version called the “puppy pose.”
If you don’t practice yoga, you might want to consider inversion therapy instead.
It was originally popularized for back pain, but can also be used to increase circulation to the head. (25)
Inversion therapy involves lying on a table or sitting in a chair designed to put your heart above your head.
More Ways to Increase Blood Flow to the Brain
Music does a lot of great things for your brain — it can make you smarter, happier, and more creative.
And one of the ways music delivers these benefits is by increasing blood flow to the brain.
Researchers can measure cerebral blood flow with tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
They found that taking music lessons or even just listening to music increases blood flow to the brain, especially when it’s music you like. (26, 27)
Learning a foreign language is often cited as one of the best ways to boost your brain power, ward off brain aging, and stay mentally sharp.
The brains of multilingual speakers are bigger, better connected, and receive better blood flow than those who speak one language. (28, 29, 30)
Neurofeedback is a mind-body technique that teaches you to control automatic body functions (like heart rate) by consciously altering brainwave patterns.
You can use it train yourself to stop the stress response which directs blood flow away from the brain. (31)
You can also use it to address some of the risk factors for low cerebral blood flow, such as high blood pressure and stress.
One kind of neurofeedback, HEG (hemoencephalography), specifically teaches how to redirect blood flow to different areas of the brain at will.
Meditation offers a wealth of brain benefits including increased circulation to the brain. (32, 33)
Research has confirmed that doing Kirtan Kriya meditation for 12 minutes per day increases blood flow to areas of the brain involved in memory retrieval.
Don’t let the mystical-sounding name discourage you, this is one of the easiest forms of meditation to master.
Acupuncture is an ancient practice purported to work by balancing the flow of the body’s vital energy, known as chi or qi.
And while that may or may not be the case, scientific evidence shows that acupuncture reduces muscle tension, decreases inflammation, balances neurotransmitters and hormones, and increases blood flow to the brain without raising blood pressure or heart rate. (34, 35, 36)
Acupuncture’s ability to increase blood flow makes it a promising treatment for stroke victims. (37, 38)
Exposure to bright light increases blood flow to the brain.
While natural sunlight works best, we understand it’s not always possible to spend time in the sun. (39)
As an alternative, you can use a lightbox — the kind used to treat seasonal affective disorder — instead. (40)
This last tip is simple.
Not only does gum chewing increase blood flow to the brain, it surprisingly alters your brainwave pattern to put you in a more relaxed state. (41)
How to Increase Blood Flow to the Brain with Supplements
There’s an overwhelming number of supplements that can improve circulation to the brain.
Here are some of the best, listed alphabetically.
We have comprehensive information on most of these supplements in other articles on our site.
- acetyl-l-carnitine (42)
- bacopa (43)
- citicoline (44)
- cocoa extract (45)
- curcumin/turmeric (46)
- fish oil (47)
- garlic (48)
- ginger (49)
- ginkgo (50)
- hawthorn (51)
- n-acetylcysteine (52)
- PPQ (53)
- pycnogenol (54)
- resveratrol (55)
- rosemary (56)
- taurine (57)
- vinpocetine (58)
- vitamin C (59)
- vitamin K (60)
Not sure where to begin? Try curcumin.
This compound extracted from the spice turmeric works like “exercise in a bottle.”
Research confirms that it improves blood flow as well as physical exercise! (61)
If you have low blood pressure, try licorice root extract. (62)
It can help normalize low blood pressure.
One supplement to avoid is yohimbine, which is often taken for weight loss and erectile dysfunction.
This herb directs blood flow away from the brain. (63)
Increase Cerebral Blood Flow with Food
And finally, the food you eat really can make a difference in your circulation.
Several of the supplements we just mentioned are derived from foods and can easily be incorporated into your diet.
Ginger, garlic, rosemary, and turmeric are spices that not only increase circulation but also make food more tasty.
Shellfish and dark meat poultry are top sources of the amino acid taurine. (64)
Fish, especially cold-water, oily fish like salmon, is the original source of the omega-3s found in fish oil.
Resveratrol is credited for many of red wine’s health benefits.
This phytonutrient is also found in berries, grapes, peanuts, and chocolate. (65, 66)
Beets are an excellent source of nitrate which is a potent blood flow regulator. (67)
Chocolate has been shown to increase cerebral blood flow and the effects last for several hours after ingestion. (68, 69)
And there’s one final tip that can make a big difference to your brain circulation — drink more tea and less coffee.
The relatively large amount of caffeine in coffee restricts blood flow to your brain.
While tea does contain caffeine, albeit substantially less than coffee, it also contains l-theanine.
L-theanine is a relaxing compound that offsets the reduction in cerebral blood flow caused by caffeine. (70)
How to Increase Blood Flow to the Brain: The Bottom Line
Underlying health conditions and the modern lifestyle take a toll on brain circulation, but fortunately, there is much you can do to get the blood flowing normally again.
Music, exercising your brain with challenging activities, supplements, foods, and mind-body techniques like meditation and neurofeedback can help.
But by far the best action you can take is to get regular physical exercise.
Walking and yoga poses that put your heart above your head are excellent ways to improve blood flow to the brain.
Maintaining optimal brain circulation is one of the most important things you can do to keep your brain healthy and fit.