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Beyond their inherent nutritional value, healthy foods like salmon, onions, and several more we’ll discuss can also widen your blood vessels in preparation for an intense workout.
Thanks to our deep fondness for oversimplified interpretations, most of us (we’re not exempting ourselves) have held the belief at one point or another that our arteries and veins are static, rigid tunnels.
But blood vessels are actually quite flexible; they can widen and relax (with natural vasodilators and/or supplements) or constrict.
This flexibility is very important in a number of contexts, as it allows the body to perfuse more or less blood into targeted tissues without putting all of the onus on heart rate alone.
Vasodilation—the ability of the blood vessels to widen and relax, allowing for greater volumes of blood to reach the tissues—is especially important during exercise.
This process can be prompted by exercise, food, supplements, and some naturally occurring phenomena (disease-related or otherwise).
As always, understanding the underlying benefits behind a dietary choice is a better motivator than simply being told to take something, so let’s start with a closer look at vasodilation via nutrition and its many benefits for athletes.
Why Does Vasodilation Matter for Exercise?
Thankfully, it doesn’t take a mastery of microbiology to understand that muscle contractions require oxygen-rich blood, a demand that grows with exercise.
In order to keep up with this significantly increased demand, our muscles call for a proportionally greater amount of this fuel during exercise, which vasodilation allows for.
Similar to a fuel injector in a car, vasodilation allows more blood to reach your strained muscle tissues faster, raising the threshold of fatigue and maximizing performance.
Though the internal reactions that take place within our muscles during anaerobic exercise (plyometrics, interval training, powerlifting, etc.) don’t require oxygen, they still need other forms of fuel like glucose.
As such, runners and lifters alike rely heavily on vasodilation for performance.
But this isn’t the only benefit to vasodilation, and athletic types are by no means the only ones who benefit.
As your muscles perform under the stress of vigorous exercise, they churn out toxic byproducts at a much faster rate than usual.
Vasodilation helps quickly clear out these toxic metabolites from the circulatory system.
Increased Lactic Threshold
Runners, swimmers, and cyclists especially will readily attest to the perils of “bricked up quads” on that last few hundred meters of the race or training session.
This is due to the buildup of lactic acid, a problem that vasodilation can help with by raising the threshold at which lactic acid production ramps up sharply.
In other words, it’s not so much about flushing the lactic acid out after the fact, but allowing you to work out harder and longer before it floods your tissues.
Another clever way the human body has of making exercise more tolerable is heat loss via vasodilation.
By dilating blood vessels that are closer to the skin (often referred to as peripheral blood vessels), the body can actually cool the blood.
As more blood nears the surface, the heat is given off via conduction.
In the same way that muscles require oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to function in the moment, they also require this fuel when recovering from the damage caused by exercise.
With an increased supply of said fuel, your muscle fibers can repair themselves more efficiently.
This is where nutrition is especially helpful, since you don’t have the benefit of exercise-induced vasodilation while recovering.
Finally, you don’t have to be a gym rat to benefit from vasodilation, as improved circulation feeds your brain and all organ systems to keep everything performing at an optimal level.
Most tissues can technically survive a few minutes or even hours without oxygen, but the heart and brain are not so forgiving in this regard.
Men especially rely on vasodilation for sexual performance, which is why erectile dysfunction products rely heavily on them.
Food-Based Vasodilators for Fitness and General Health
Our bodies synthesize and release nitric oxide, a potent vasodilator, in response to physical and some mental stressors.
Whether or not this mechanism becomes damaged, there are plenty of foods that can facilitate this process for improved exercise performance, cognitive ability, sexual health, and more.
These healthy foods are a great place to start:
When Vasodilation Goes Wrong
As mentioned, exercise itself can induce vasodilation, as demonstrated in this study by the University of Western Australia.
According to the study, “Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF165)-mediated vasodilation was enhanced by exercise training via elevated NO bioavailability.”
In other words, the body responds to exercise by making NO (the vasodilator nitric oxide) more available, thereby increasing vasodilation.
However, we haven’t yet covered the dangers of excessive vasodilation, which is becoming more relevant as everyday people with or without athletic backgrounds try to adopt the supplementation and training strategies of olympic powerlifters.
As rewarding as it may be for the social media feed, bulking up with the help of strong vasodilators and other pre-workout supplements can have some seriously damaging effects.
For example, according to Physiology, Vasodilation, a book co-authored by medical experts from the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, excessive vasodilation is associated with an “inflammatory cascade” that can lead to anaphylaxis (extreme, potentially fatal allergic reaction).
Per the authors, excessive vasodilation is also associated with septic shock, another very-not-good outcome involving inflammation, infection, and a potential for death.
In other words, if you’re in the market for an actual supplement that contains vasodilators, we highly recommend consulting your doctor before use.