Brain circulation (also called cerebral blood flow or blood flow to the brain) is very important for all aspects of brain function. Your brain depends critically on oxygen, glucose, and other nutrients that the blood brings. Poor brain circulation contributes to a range of physical and mental disorders and may greatly impair quality of life.
Ensuring that you have good blood flow to the brain is critical for health and recovery from any chronic disease. Read this post to learn more about brain circulation and how to improve it.
Supplemental and nutritional therapies cannot treat a diagnosed cardiovascular (circulatory) condition. If you have one, make sure to follow your doctor’s recommendations precisely.
That said, some foods and supplements are known to improve brain circulation. While we strongly recommend against using any of these strategies in place of what your doctor recommends, some of them may be helpful alongside prescribed medication. Your doctor can help you determine which complementary strategies could be right for you.
What Is Brain Circulation?
Brain circulation, or brain blood flow, is the movement of blood through the network of arteries and veins supplying blood to the brain. The arteries deliver oxygenated blood, glucose, and other nutrients to the brain. The veins carry deoxygenated blood back to the heart, removing carbon dioxide, lactic acid, and other metabolic products.
Why Is It Important?
The brain is the most important organ to receive the blood supply. Although it’s only 2% of your body weight, it consumes 50% of glucose and 20% of the oxygen that is available in the body .
In addition, the blood also removes waste from the brain. Lack of oxygen for merely minutes will start to kill brain cells.
However, during most of the days, when we are upright, the brain is the highest part of the body with the smallest blood vessels that are furthest from the heart. This makes the brain a difficult organ to deliver blood to.
Too little blood flow results in a lack of glucose and oxygen needed to keep neurons metabolically active, a condition known as ischemia. Too much blood flow results in increased intracranial pressure, which may cause severe neurological damage in extreme cases.
Therefore, the body has several checks and balances to ensure that the brain receives sufficient blood flow and oxygen .
Adults with normal blood pressure get about 50 ml of blood to 100 g of brain tissue per minute, which provides oxygen pressure to the brain at between 60-160 mmHg .
If the oxygen pressure to the brain falls outside of this range, the brain loses its ability to maintain constant blood flow, so the blood flow strictly depends on the pressure within the arteries (mean arterial pressure) .
Causes of Poor Brain Circulation
1) Low or High Blood Pressure
Some people have very low blood pressure due to low vasopressin (ADH) levels, so low blood flow to the brain is a major concern.
Low blood pressure has been related to a risk of brain atrophy (loss of brain tissue). In a study examining patients with hardening of the arteries, those with lower blood pressure and less blood flow to the brain were more likely to have brain atrophy .
Note: In this study, low blood pressure was considered only systolic (the higher number) below 120.
In some people with hypertension, the underlying cause is constriction of the blood vessels (vasoconstriction), which also reduces blood flow to the brain. Hormones like vasopressin and angiotensin II constrict the blood vessels and cause these effects .
Conversely, drugs that reduce the functions of these hormones, such as ACE-inhibitors (many blood pressure drugs) increase blood flow to the brain .
High histamine or mast cell activation also causes low blood pressure because histamine is a vasodilator .
It is therefore important to maintain healthy blood pressure in order to have good brain circulation.
2) Poor Overall Circulation
Factors that can cause poor circulation include:
- Inflammation and infections, such as bacterial meningitis .
- Low thyroid .
- Low nitric oxide .
- Poor blood vessel health (due to atherosclerosis and high blood sugar) 
3) Oxidative Stress
Oxidative stress damages the blood vessels. In turn, low brain blood flow also increases oxidative damage in the brain, so it’s a vicious cycle.
When oxidative species attack red blood cells and other components in the blood vessel, these damaged components can clump up and make the blood more viscous. This can impair blood flow .
Oxidative stress also results in poor blood vessel health and stiffening of the blood vessels, which results in poor circulation.
Angiotensin II activates NADPH oxidase, which generates ROS in the brain (cerebral) arteries .
4) Chronic Stress
Chronic stress and stress from provoking a traumatic experience reduces blood flow to the brain but increases blood flow to the amygdala (the fear response center) [13, 14].
Acute mental stress, however, increases blood flow to the brain. Levels of blood flow to the brain correlate with the increased heart rate and cortisol levels .
5) Traumatic Brain Injuries
Lack of oxygen in the brain tissue (ischemia) is observed in ~30% of people with traumatic brain injuries .
In addition, the severity of the injuries correlates with the reduction in blood flow to the brain [17, 16].
Health Problems Linked to Poor Brain Circulation
1) “Brain Fog” and Poor Cognitive Function
Brain circulation enables energy production in the brain and plays an important role in preserving cognitive functions [18, 19].
Therefore, increasing brain circulation in certain areas of the brain may improve cognitive deficits and relieve “brain fog” .
In the Rotterdam Study, a large longitudinal study designed to assess the factors related to dementia and cognitive decline, researchers found that in 1,716 subjects without dementia, an increased probability of cognitive decline was related to decreased brain blood flow .
Adequate blood flow is crucial to normal cognitive function and preserving circulation in the brain may be important in slowing down and even preventing cognitive decline later in life.
2) Parkinson’s Disease
In one study, Parkinson’s disease patients with dementia had decreased blood flow in certain areas of the brain in comparison to controls .
3) Alzheimer’s Disease
Reduced blood flow in key brain regions is one of the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and therapy that increases blood flow to the brain shows some benefits to Alzheimer’s patients .
Decreased blood flow in the select brain regions has also been shown to occur in some patients with late-life depression .
Generally, provoking the traumatic experiences in PTSD patients result in increased blood flow to the amygdala (the brain region associated with fear conditioning) and decreased blood flow to other regions of the brain [25, 26].
6) OCD and Anxiety Disorder
People with anxiety disorders, OCD, agoraphobia, and PTSD have significantly less brain blood flow than healthy people, according to some research .
7) Exercise-Induced Fatigue and General Fatigue
It is normal to become fatigued after exercise or physical exertion. Part of the fatigue is explained by the reduction of blood flow to the brain.
During exercise, increased breathing (hyperventilation) reduced the amount of carbon dioxide in the arteries. This restricts the blood flow to the brain. The reduction of available oxygen to the brain contributes to fatigue .
Hypoxia increases adenosine in the brain. The increased adenosine levels in the brain may cause drowsiness .
8) Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
According to a small clinical trial, chronic fatigue syndrome patients have less blood flow to the brain than healthy people .
Lifestyle Changes That Increase Brain Circulation
1) Moderate Intensity Exercise
Brain blood flow has been shown to increase during easy to moderate exercise .
Conversely, high-intensity exercise may actually decrease blood flow to the brain, as blood is redistributed throughout the body to reduce body temperature.
2) Cold Exposure to the Hands, Feet, or Face
Cold water increases circulation in the brain. Research shows that immersing one foot or hand in cold water for a few minutes increased blood pressure and brain blood flow speed [32, 33].
Submerging the face in cold water triggers a reflex and causes the heart rate to decrease, non-vital blood vessels to constrict, blood vessels in the heart and brain to dilate, and blood pressure to increase .
3) Whole Body Vibration
Whole-body vibration therapy increases peripheral (distant) circulation in humans, according to a meta-analysis of 10 clinical trials .
In rats, prolonged whole-body vibration therapy increased blood flow to the brain .
4) Inversion Therapy
By gravity, inversion therapy can increase blood flow to the brain .
Both inversion and vibration therapies come with certain health risks and should be practiced under strict medical supervision.
5) Caffeine Restriction
It is well-documented that caffeine, both chronic and acute, causes vessels in the brain to constrict by blocking adenosine receptors, consequently impairing brain circulation [38, 39].
While the brain does compensate for this by increasing adenosine receptors during daily caffeine use, research shows this compensation does not completely counteract the decrease in blood flow .
To mitigate the effects of caffeine on brain circulation, it is advisable to take periodic breaks from caffeine consumption.
Foods That Increase Brain Circulation
6) Nitrate-Rich Foods
Nitrate-rich foods include beets, leafy greens (like spinach and arugula), celery, and carrots.
Dietary nitrates are converted into nitric oxide in the body. Research shows that nitrates derived from vegetables increase brain blood flow in response to cognitively-demanding tasks and improve cognitive performance .
In a pilot study, nitrate-rich beet juice increased nitric oxide concentration in the blood, decreased blood pressure, and improved cognitive functions .
Supplements That Directly Increase Brain Circulation
7) Ginkgo Biloba
The leaves of the Ginkgo biloba tree have been shown to increase blood flow in specific areas of the brain as well as overall brain blood flow .
A systematic review and meta-analysis found that the herb improved cognitive function and daily living activities in dementia patients .
Vinpocetine plays an important role in the management of neurological diseases. It selectively increases brain blood flow, energy production, and may improve the cognitive function .
Vinpocetine increases blood flow in the brain by thinning out blood and preventing blood from clotting [46, 47].
Ibudilast is commonly used in Japan to treat patients with stroke. It improves brain blood flow by dilating blood vessels and prevents platelet aggregation by inhibiting PDE4 .
Ibudilast increases brain blood flow in patients suffering from stroke and chronic brain diseases [49, 50].
However, the beneficial effects of ibudilast in healthy people who wish to enhance blood circulation are not well studied.
Carnitine is a natural compound found in many animals, plants, and organisms.
Acetyl-L-carnitine, which is derived from carnitine, increases brain blood flow in patients with stroke and insufficient brain circulation [51, 52].
In two studies with 576 older people, acetyl-L-carnitine enhanced cognition, improved mood and behavior, and reduced fatigue. In 56 older patients, it partially reversed dementia due to reduced blood flow in the brain [53, 54, 55].
Resveratrol increases blood supply to the brain and improves cognitive function and mood. It decreases the risk of developing dementia in postmenopausal women and other at-risk populations in different clinical trials [56, 57, 58].
Resveratrol works by dilating blood vessels in the brain, thus increasing brain circulation. Additionally, it may protect the blood vessels from free-radical damage .
No valid clinical evidence supports the use of supplements in this section for improving brain circulation. Below is a summary of up-to-date animal studies, cell-based research, or low-quality clinical trials which should spark further investigation. However, you shouldn’t interpret them as supportive of any health benefit.
Ginseng has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and protects neurons from damage .
In a study with 50 heart attack patients, 3 g/day red ginseng following heart surgery increased circulating angiogenic cell action (cells that make new blood vessels) and reduced inflammation levels, indicating improved blood flow .
In animal trials, Its extract increases brain blood flow, capillary densities, and production of blood vessels. Ginseng helped with brain injuries caused by insufficient blood supply to the brain [62, 63].
13) NAC (N-Acetyl Cysteine)
NAC is an antioxidant that increases brain blood flow and oxygen delivery, combats oxidative stress, prevents cell death, and minimizes brain injuries in human infants and animals [64, 65].
In rats, NAC opens up blockages caused by a stroke in arteries and blood vessels .
Animal and Cellular Research (Lacking Evidence)
No clinical evidence supports the approaches listed below to improve brain circulation. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies listed below should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.
Citrulline, a precursor of arginine, increases nitric oxide concentrations in the blood and restores damaged blood vessels.
In animal studies, treatment with citrulline prevented the decrease in brain circulation, death of brain cells, and capillary loss following blood supply impairment to the brain. Citrulline improves cognitive dysfunction and memory in rats with brain damage [67, 68].
In rats, bacopa increased brain blood flow independent of blood pressure .
Supplements That May Protect the Brain
Astragalus is commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine. It enhanced functional recovery in 78 stroke patients .
In a rat study, Astragalus prevented brain cell death, reduced the size of brain injuries, and improved brain function in brain injuries caused by reduced circulation .
Brain injuries caused by insufficient blood supply often cause inflammation and swelling. One of the major components of Astragalus alleviates these symptoms through anti-inflammatory effects .
Anthocyanins protect against brain disorders that result from a reduction in blood flow to the brain.
They reduce neuronal damage caused by an inadequate blood supply in rats. Anthocyanins prevent the production of proteins that trigger cell death and suppress tumors (p-JNK and p53 transmission pathways) .
In one animal trial, an extract containing anthocyanins protects brain circulation and blood vessel function following brain damage .
Phosphatidylcholines are the main component of all cell membranes. Good sources of phosphatidylcholine are eggs, dairy, soybeans, red meat, whole grains, and cruciferous vegetables (like arugula and Brussel sprouts).
Disruption of brain circulation is associated with decreased levels of phosphatidylcholine in patients with stroke [75, 76].
Lecithin, a mixture of fats including phosphatidylcholine, increased antioxidant enzymes (MDA, CAT) in rat brains damaged by the lack of blood flow and oxygen .
Zingerone, an antioxidant of ginger, prevents the death of neurons and reduces oxidative stress in rats with brain damage caused by insufficient blood supply .
Diseases That Adversely Affect Brain Circulation
Cerebrovascular diseases affect the vessels of the brain that result from insufficient blood flow to brain cells and include:
- Stroke: An abrupt interruption of constant blood flow to the brain, causing loss of neurological function. A stroke can be caused by a blockage in a blood vessel (ischemic) or bleeding in the brain (hemorrhagic)
- Stenosis: Abnormal narrowing of the blood vessels, usually caused by hardening of the arteries
- Aneurysm: A bulge in the wall of an artery that pools with blood
Cerebrovascular diseases have many different causes, including hardening of the arteries, lodging of a blood clot or foreign material in the blood vessels (embolism), or high blood pressure. Therefore, any lifestyle or dietary intervention that improves these factors can possibly improve blood flow in the brain.
Increasing brain circulation may not guarantee that cognitive functions such as memory or attention will be improved, despite correlations between brain circulation and cognitive function.