Your circulatory system, also known as your cardiovascular system, is made up of your heart and blood vessels. It works to transport oxygen and other nutrients to all the organs and tissues in your body. It also works to remove carbon dioxide and other waste products.
Having a healthy circulatory system is vital to your health and well-being. Continue reading as we delve deeper into the circulatory system, its function, and what you can do to keep your heart and blood vessels in good shape.
Your circulatory system is made up of several parts, including your:
- Heart. This muscular organ works to pump blood throughout your body via an intricate network of blood vessels.
- Arteries. These thick-walled blood vessels carry oxygenated blood away from your heart.
- Veins. These blood vessels carry deoxygenated blood back toward your heart.
- Capillaries. These tiny blood vessels facilitate the exchange of oxygen, nutrients, and waste between your circulatory system and your organs and tissues.
- Your heart pumps about 5 liters of blood per minute, but it’s only
about the size of your fist.
- It’s estimated that in a 70-year period, your heart will beat over 2.5 billion times.
- In most adult humans, a normal resting heart rate is between 60 to 100 beats per minute.
- The total length of all of the blood vessels in your body is about 60,000 miles.
- Capillaries are your most numerous blood vessels and also the smallest. Red blood cells often have to move through the capillaries in single-file.
- Your blood pressure changes throughout the day. It’s lowest when you’re asleep, and it peaks in the middle of the afternoon.
Your circulatory system is vital to your survival. Its function is to distribute blood and other nutrients to all your body’s organs and tissues.
The small blood vessels called capillaries facilitate the exchange of oxygen and nutrients between your blood and the cells in your body. Carbon dioxide and other waste products, which are expelled from your body, are also exchanged via your capillaries. These tiny capillaries are spread throughout your body so that they can reach every cell.
Let’s follow the blood on a simple loop through the circulatory system to see how it works:
- Oxygen-depleted blood returns to your heart (the right side) via the veins.
- Your heart pumps this blood to the lungs. In the lungs, the blood gets rid of carbon dioxide and picks up fresh oxygen.
- Newly oxygenated blood returns to the other side of the heart (the left side), where it’s then pumped into the arteries.
- Eventually, the blood enters the capillaries. Here, it releases oxygen and nutrients to your body’s organs and tissues. It then picks up carbon dioxide and other waste products.
- The oxygen-depleted blood returns to the heart through the veins, and the cycle begins all over again.
The circulatory system can also respond to various stimuli to regulate the flow of blood. Examples of these stimuli include changes in:
Below, we’ll explore some of the most common conditions that can affect the health of your circulatory system.
Atherosclerosis is when plaque builds up along the walls of your arteries. Risk factors that can contribute to plaque buildup include:
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- tobacco use
- an unhealthy diet
- low levels of physical activity
- being overweight or obese
Atherosclerosis can gradually make the arteries narrower, affecting the amount of blood that can flow through them. Because of this, organs and tissues may not get enough oxygen.
When atherosclerosis affects the arteries of your heart, it’s called coronary artery disease. Other arteries in your body can also be affected as well. This is called peripheral artery disease, which affects how well blood can flow to your legs, feet, arms, and hands.
In some cases, an artery may become completely blocked by plaque or a blood clot. When this happens, a heart attack or stroke can occur.
High blood pressure
Your blood pressure is the force that your blood exerts on the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps. High blood pressure can eventually damage your heart and blood vessels, as well as other organs like your brain, kidneys, and eyes.
Angina is chest pain that occurs when your heart isn’t getting enough oxygen. It’s often caused by coronary artery disease, which makes the arteries supplying the heart narrower due to plaque buildup.
An arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rhythm. When you have an arrhythmia, your heart may be beating too fast (tachycardia), too slowly (bradycardia), or irregularly. It happens due to changes in the heart or its electrical signals.
Your veins contain valves that help keep oxygen-depleted blood flowing toward your heart. When these valves fail, blood collects in the veins, which can cause them to bulge and become swollen or painful.
Varicose veins most often appear on the lower legs.
A blood clot is when blood coagulates or clumps together to form a gel-like mass. This clot can get stuck in a blood vessel where it blocks the flow of blood. Blood clots can cause:
A heart attack happens when the flow of blood to part of the heart is blocked or when the oxygen demand of the heart exceeds the oxygen supply. When this happens, that area of the heart can’t get enough oxygen and begins to die or lose function.
A stroke is when a blood vessel that supplies the brain with oxygen and nutrients is blocked. When this happens, cells in your brain begin to die off. Because these cells can’t be replaced, damage to the brain can be permanent unless blood flow is quickly restored.
Below are some examples of other conditions that can affect your circulatory system.
- Heart failure. Heart failure is when your heart isn’t pumping blood as efficiently as it should, meaning your organs and tissues may not be getting enough oxygen or the pressure in the heart may be too high. There are two types of heart failure: systolic or diastolic. Systolic heart failure is when the heart isn’t pumping blood efficiently. Diastolic heart failure occurs when the heart pumps normally but doesn’t relax normally due to increased stiffness.
- Heart valve problems. Heart valves help control the flow of blood in your heart. Heart valve problems, such as leaky or blocked (stenotic) valves, can cause your heart to be less efficient at pumping blood.
- Heart inflammation. This can include inflammation of the inner lining of the heart (endocarditis), the outer sac of the heart (pericarditis), or the heart muscle itself (myocarditis).
- Aneurysm. An aneurysm is when the wall of an artery becomes weakened and begins to bulge. This can occur in the big arteries (aortic aneurysm) or the small arteries (coronary aneurysm). If an aneurysm in a large artery ruptures, it can be life-threatening.
- Congenital heart disease. This is when you’re born with an abnormality in your heart or blood vessels, usually related to the formation of the heart muscle.
- Vasculitis. This is inflammation of the walls of your blood vessels and can lead to complications like aneurysms.
Circulatory system issues are best treated as early as possible. In some cases, you may not even know that there’s an issue with your heart or blood vessels.
Additionally, it’s always a good rule of thumb to make an appointment with your doctor if you experience symptoms that are new, persistent, or unexplained by another condition or medication.
Call 911 or seek immediate medical attention if you experience signs of a heart attack or stroke.
Signs of a heart attack can include:
- sudden pain or pressure in your chest, which may spread to your shoulders, arms, or neck
- rapid or irregular heartbeat
- shortness of breath
- digestive symptoms, such as upset stomach, nausea, or vomiting
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- feelings of weakness or fatigue
Signs of a stroke include:
- Get your heart pumping. Regular cardiovascular exercise is one of the best ways to get your heart pumping and to improve blood flow throughout your body. It’s
recommendedthat you aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio exercise per week.
- Eat heart-healthy foods. Choose foods like whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean protein, including fish. Try to limit foods that are high in:
- Maintain a moderate weight. Carrying more weight can place more stress on your heart and blood vessels.
- Manage stress. High levels of long-term stress can affect your heart health. Try to manage stress in healthy ways. Some stress-reducing options include:
- Limit sitting. Sitting still for long periods, such as at a desk or on a plane, can restrict blood flow. Make a point to stand up and move around at least once an hour.
- Quit smoking. Smoking increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. If you’re having difficulty quitting, talk to your healthcare provider. They can help you come up with a plan and recommend tools to help you quit.
- See your doctor regularly. Getting regular checkups can help you and your doctor monitor your overall health, including your blood pressure, cholesterol, and any underlying conditions.
Your circulatory system is made up of your heart and an intricate network of blood vessels. The purpose of this system is to keep all the cells in your body supplied with fresh oxygen and nutrients while removing carbon dioxide and other waste products.
Several different types of conditions can affect your circulatory system. Many of these conditions involve some type of blood vessel blockage, which can lower oxygen delivery to vital organs.
There are steps you can take to keep your circulatory system as healthy as possible. Some key steps include getting regular exercise, eating heart-healthy foods, not smoking, and maintaining a moderate weight.
Regular visits to your doctor can also help identify and treat any potential problems before they become more serious issues.