What is Vasoconstriction?
Vasoconstriction is a physiological or induced process in which the blood vessels become narrower due to the contraction of the smooth muscles that line the walls of the vessels. This mainly occurs in the small arterioles as well as large arteries and reduces the blood flow to different parts of the body. This physiological phenomenon is quite important in preventing blood loss during injuries, hemorrhages, etc. and also helps in heat preservation. Though physiologically induced vasoconstriction is beneficial, vasoconstriction induced due to exogenous stimuli isn’t good for health and may have serious effects on the overall health of the person.
Symptoms of Vasoconstriction
The common symptoms of vasoconstriction are as follows:
- High blood pressure
- Dilated pupils
- Changes in the skin color
- Tingling in toes and fingers
- Impaired muscle control
- Muscle paralysis
- Slurred speech
- Vision problems
Causes of Vasoconstriction
Vasoconstriction can occur due to a number of reasons, most important of them being:
Salty Food – The sodium present in salt can lead to water retention which will increase blood volume, thus constricting the blood vessels. Therefore, those who consume food rich in salt have a higher risk of suffering from vasoconstriction that may become the cause of hypertension. Reducing consumption of processed and junk food like pizza, frozen dinners, fries, canned soup, canned meatloaf, etc. may help reduce excess consumption of salt.
Bad Cholesterol – Food items that contain Trans-fat and saturated fat can also be considered as causes of vasoconstriction. These fats are known to be bad cholesterol as they have a bad impact on cardiac health and blood circulation. So, in order to prevent vasoconstriction, it is important that you stay away from food items like full-fat milk, cheese, yogurt and cream, palm oil, coconut oil and cream, butter, ghee, fatty meat, etc.
Caffeinated Drinks and Food Items – Vasoconstriction can also be caused due to excess consumption of caffeinated drinks like soda, tea, coffee, etc. as well as chocolates which contain a good amount of caffeine.
Refined Carbs – Vasoconstriction may also occur due to over-consumption of refined carbohydrates such as white pasta and white bread. Though these food items cannot cause vasoconstriction by themselves, they can become a potent causal factor when combined with other factors like bad cholesterol, caffeine, etc.
Licorice – The extract of licorice root that’s often used in alcoholic drinks, candy, tea, etc. contains a compound called glycyrrhizin acid which causes potassium loss and sodium retention in the body that increases blood pressure.
Alcohol – Moderate and heavy consumption of alcohol can lead to thickening of the walls of the blood vessels and thus, cause vasoconstriction.
Substance Abuse – Using and abusing nicotine, cocaine and other types of stimulants may also lead to vasoconstriction.
Antihistamines – The activation of the H1 histamine receptor is responsible for vasodilation, along with a variety of other effects. Antihistamines, thus, prevent the activity of the histamines and cause vasoconstriction.
Monosodium Glutamate – Commonly used as a flavor enhancer, MSG helps open up the calcium channels, thus causing constricting effect on the blood vessels.
Tyramine – Food items like smoked, aged or pickled meat, marinated or fermented beef, poultry, and fish, chocolates, most cheeses, alcoholic beverages, yogurt, sour cream, etc. contain a good amount of tyramine. Excess tyramine is known to replace noradrenaline from the neuronal storage vesicles which leads to vasoconstriction.
Certain Medicines – Regular use of medicines like epinephrine, vasopressin, norepinephrine, pseudoephedrine, pseudoephedrine and other vasoconstrictor drugs may cause vasoconstriction.
Vasoconstriction impedes regular blood flow that not only affects the overall health of an individual, but can also have an impact on cardiac health, leading to fatality in the long term. So, immediate response to the symptoms of vasoconstriction is a prudent way to prevent further illnesses. As such, treatment should begin as soon as any signs of vasoconstriction show up. Treating vasoconstriction can be quite simple if treatment starts very early.
Medications – Since the blood vessels become narrow, medications that act as vasodilators can be used to increase the blood flow. These medicines mostly work by blocking calcium channels and inhibiting the activity of alpha adrenoceptors.
Exercises – Practicing several cardiovascular exercises for an hour daily can help fight against vasoconstriction. These exercises not only enhance blood flow, but also help to dilate the blood vessels to a certain extent to nullify the constrictive effect.
Avoid Cold – Exposure to too much cold may cause the vessels to constrict so as to preserve heat. As such, continued exposure may lead to serious constrictions in the limbs as well as other superficial areas of the body. So, if you are suffering from vasoconstriction, it would be prudent that you do not stay in the cold for too long.
Avoid Stress – Stress, as well as strong emotions, can lead to vasoconstriction in various segments of the coronary artery and in severe cases, can lead to a feeling of extreme cold in the toes and fingers, a condition often known as Raynaud’s syndrome. Avoiding stress of all kinds can help prevent acute constriction of the blood vessels.
Healthy Diet – To treat vasoconstriction successfully, it is important that one adopts a healthy diet that doesn’t include too much of processed or canned food items that contain too much of salt or bad cholesterol that may lead to vasoconstriction.
Alcohol and Drug Abstinence – To fight against vasoconstriction, it is important that you avoid alcohol intake as well as stay away from drugs like cocaine. Nicotine must also be avoided while treatment is ongoing.
Treat Any Underlying Disease – If the constriction is due to some other disease, it is important that treatment for the same is satisfactorily carried out as well.
Risks Factors of Vasoconstriction
In mild conditions, vasoconstriction may not pose much of a treat, but moderate to severe vasoconstriction can have a number of risks associated, the main ones being:
- Increased blood pressure, thus hypertension
- Arrhythmia or improper heartbeats
- Negative effect on the heart which may lead to an attack
- Prolonged blood depravation may necessitate limb amputation
- Erectile dysfunction due to shortage of blood to cause an erection
Who are at Risk?
Though vasoconstriction can occur in anyone, the following types of people are more at risk:
- People who suffer from arterial hypocapnia
- People who lead a sedentary lifestyle
- People who abuse drugs and other substances
- People who excessively consume tea, coffee or soda
- People who are more into processed foods
- People who take decongestants regularly
Peripheral vasoconstriction occurs when the body is exposed to excess cold, like swimming in cooler or sub-zero waters, etc. In such a case, the body starts channeling the maximum of the blood towards the internal organs, thus reducing flow in the skin and the limbs. This is the body’s autonomic reaction to making the skin an insulator around the vital organs and preventing the onset of hypothermia, while allowing enhanced oxygen flow in the heart and the brain. The onset of peripheral vasoconstriction occurs immediately when any part of the body is exposed to the cold; it is not necessary for the full body to be exposed. Immediate symptoms of peripheral vasoconstriction are paling of the toes and fingers, urge to urinate, etc. whereas long-term effects may include shivering, etc.
Hypoxic Pulmonary Vasoconstriction
HPV or Hypoxic Pulmonary Vasoconstriction refers to the constriction of the minor pulmonary arteries in response to low levels of oxygen, thus helping in maintaining ventilation/perfusion ration. This reaction is quite contrary to that presented by the systemic circulation wherein a scarcity of oxygen leads to vasodilation. HPV is quite useful in cases of regional obstruction of the airflow, but may prove to be detrimental when the obstruction or scarcity is global, like at high altitudes. In such cases, HPV may lead to pulmonary edema, pulmonary hypertension, etc.
Reversible Cerebral Vasoconstriction Syndrome
RCVS is usually caused when a disturbance occurs in the controlling of the muscle tone of smooth muscles that are present in the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain. This causes sudden constriction of the blood vessels, thus reducing the flow of blood into the brain. This may result in severe and sudden headaches (referred to as thunderclap headaches) that last for a period of about 1-3 weeks and may be accompanied with other symptoms like phonophobia, photophobia, nausea, vomiting, etc. Though the problem usually diminishes and vanishes gradually, persistence may lead to brain strokes or death (very rare).
Vasoconstriction in Athletes
Cold therapy is often used for injuries caused during sports or in athletes. Cold therapy is nothing but induced vasoconstriction in the injured area as well as its surroundings and can actually help in speeding up the healing procedure. Not only does it reduce the swelling and the pain, but also stops the blood flow by constricting the blood vessels so that too much blood isn’t lost. Moreover, lower blood to the injured area reduces the rate of metabolism in that area, thus diminishing the rate of cell death and promoting faster recovery.
As soon as symptoms of vasoconstriction appear, go and see a doctor who would be able to diagnose vasoconstriction and determine the cause of it. Doing this at the earliest will not only help cure the illness quickly, but also prevent the onset of other ailments that are caused due to severe or prolonged vasoconstriction. Leading a healthy lifestyle can also help cure and prevent vasoconstriction.