Thick blood causes a vicious cycle
When blood viscosity is high, it triggers a cycle of other mechanisms in the kidneys to try to compensate. In the process, it actually worsens blood viscosity.
When blood becomes thick (or more viscous), what occurs is a type of vicious cycle. Thicker blood means less fluid passes through the kidneys. The kidneys then increase blood pressure to try to direct more fluid toward them, but this also triggers the release of a type of protein called erythropoietin that thickens blood, and the cycle continues.
All cardiovascular conditions are associated with thick blood
The idea of “thick blood” has probably never crossed your mind, let alone come up in a doctor’s visit. Despite the well-documented role of high blood viscosity in the development and complication of many diseases, it has been largely “neglected” by mainstream medicine (3).
A high blood viscosity is implicated in heart failure, inflammation, renal failure, and most notably, the pathogenesis of atherothrombosis (3).
The root of all heart problems
Thick blood, iron overload, and other cardiovascular risk factors are likely what connects most—if not all—forms of heart problems. Atherothrombosis, which occurs when artery-clogging plaque breaks off and blocks blood flow, is the leading cause of mortality in the Western world. This type of plaque build-up is a complex process that normally begins relatively early in life and progresses with age, often without symptoms (4).
Later in life, when this atherosclerotic plaque builds up, it can manifest as coronary artery disease (CAD), stroke, transient ischaemic attack (TIA), and peripheral arterial disease (PAD).
From an integrative medicine point of view, researchers believe we should approach this disease as a single pathologic entity that affects different vascular territories (4).
You might like: Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease with Integrative Medicine
Thick blood means slow flow—and increased risk of blood clots
Blood viscosity is inversely related to blood flow, which means the thicker the blood, the slower it flows (5).
Clearly, blood viscosity has major control over how your blood behaves. Which is important for things like clotting.
According to one German pathologist, slow blood flow is one of three main factors that greatly increase the risk of thrombosis, which can cause a stroke (4). The remaining two are hypercoagulability (high clotting factors present in blood), and abnormalities in the walls of your blood vessels (such as damage).
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Iron overload and your red blood cells
Iron is an important mineral that our bodies need for many functions. However, too much iron can be toxic. Additionally, one in every 200 people have a condition called hemochromatosis, which causes excessive iron to be stored in the blood. It’s the most common inherited genetic condition in caucasian people, but the vast majority of people who have it are completely unaware (6).
An iron-rich diet, as well as supplemental iron, can support healthy red blood cell function. However, because excessive iron can raise your hematocrit level, you should speak with your doctor about whether or not iron supplementation is right for you. A high hematocrit can increase blood viscosity, sometimes to an unhealthy level (7)
Possible signs you may have too much iron in your blood include (8):
- Fatigue or general weakness
- Heart flutters or irregular heartbeat
- Swollen ankles
- Joint pain, similar to arthritis pain
- Abdominal pain
- Unexplained weight loss
Ask a CentreSpringMD provider about how to evaluate your iron levels, as well as the health of your heart.
Who’s at greatest risk for increased blood viscosity?
Men are more likely than women to have iron overload and a high blood viscosity. This may be due to the obvious factor that men don’t menstruate as women do, naturally releasing a certain amount of both iron and red blood cells each month.
Men are also more likely to have decreased oxygen delivery within blood cells, which may also account for an increased risk of cardiovascular issues (9).
Men of any age should monitor their iron levels, which can be easily performed at your next appointment.
A surprising way to reduce cardiovascular risk
Despite the potentially dire risks of thick blood for your heart and arteries, there is a surprisingly simple way to reduce your risk of heart disease, and your risk factors for other health problems as well.
This simple action? Donating blood.
Benefits of donating blood
We often hear about the benefits of donating blood for the recipient, but rarely for the person who’s donating. Regular blood donation may reduce hematocrit and blood viscosity, and increase oxygen delivery in men (9).
- Donating blood can reduce harmful iron stores
- You’ll also get a brief physical before you donate (blood tests, infectious diseases, etc.)
- It’s a good way to keep an eye on your hematocrit, and hemoglobin levels.
- Donating blood can reduce your risk of cardiovascular events, such as a heart attack, by up to 88% (10)
- It also reduces blood viscosity if thicker than it should be, which reduces the risk of blood clots.
Men can donate blood more often than women, and it’s even more beneficial to do so. Some recommendations state that men can donate blood as often as every 12 weeks, while women should wait for every 16 (11).
Protect Your Heart with Integrative Medicine
So what can you do to reduce your risk of cardiovascular problems and improve your overall health? Check your iron levels, and ask your doctor if you should donate blood. It’s a simple solution with big benefits—for both you and those in need. Donating blood is one way to make sure that everyone has access to lifesaving treatments in an emergency, and it’s also a great way to make sure that you stay healthy by reducing your risk factors for heart disease and other serious conditions.