Blood flowing easily through your arteries and veins is pivotal to maintaining your blood circulation. We take this process for granted until our blood becomes thickened or develops clots, which stops the flow of blood. This leads to disabling effects on the heart, muscles, brain, and any organ that is dependent on that blood flow.
As a vascular surgeon, I have too often seen just how devastating poor or obstructed blood flow can be on the body. The arteries and veins that make up your vascular system are the highway that delivers oxygen and nutrients to the body’s cells.
A common way this highway becomes obstructed is due to a blood clot. A blood clot is congealed blood much like “blood jelly.” Blood clots can be particularly problematic when they prevent your blood from freely flowing to vital organs such as the heart or brain, causing a catastrophic heart attack or stroke.
Medications commonly known as blood thinners can be prescribed to help the blood flow smoothly through your arteries and veins. Think of blood thinners as decreasing the viscosity of your blood. These medications keep blood clots from either forming in the first place or becoming larger by affecting the body’s coagulation system.
One class of blood thinners – known as anticoagulants – prevent blood clots from forming by increasing the amount of time it takes for your blood to clot. Coumadin (Warfarin) and Heparin are commonly prescribed anticoagulants.
A second class – known as antiplatelet drugs – prevent cells called platelets from clumping or sticking together. Platelets are important cells in preventing you from bleeding. Inhibiting the effects of platelets helps with preventing of clot formation. Aspirin and Plavix are commonly taken antiplatelet blood thinners.
Approximately three million Americans take blood thinners annually. You may need them if you have already had a heart attack or a stroke, since they can significantly lower your risk of having a second one.
You may also need them if you have been diagnosed with heart or vascular disease, have an irregular heart rhythm, lupus, or deep vein thrombosis (DVT) – this is a dangerous type of blood clot that often forms in the leg.
If you are overweight, a smoker, or recently had surgery, you also have a greater risk for developing a blood clot.
Some people only need a blood thinner regimen for a short period of time. However, if you have ongoing health problems related to heart or vascular disease, you may need to take them daily.
Blood thinners are highly effective in protecting against heart attack and stroke. However, because they prevent your blood from clotting, they do present some minor risks. For instance, they may cause you to bleed more than usual when you cut yourself or you may bruise easier.
Blood thinners in your system may also increase your risk of internal bleeding after an injury. If you experience dizziness, muscle weakness, an excessive rash, or hair loss following a fall or bumping your head, you should immediately seek medical attention – even if you have no external bleeding.
The lifesaving benefits of these drugs, however, far outweighs the risks of taking them.
Foods high in vitamin K such as cabbage, asparagus, and broccoli can lessen the effectiveness of some anticoagulants such as Coumadin (Warfarin). Depending on the blood thinner you are taking, you may still be able to eat foods with low to moderate levels of vitamin K.
Herbal supplements such as ginseng, gingko biloba, and goldenseal should also be used with caution if you are on an anticoagulant, as these may interfere with the anti-clotting abilities of your blood thinner.
There are also a number of pain relievers, antibiotics, anti-fungal drugs, and acid reducers that can increase your risk of bleeding if used in combination. Birth control pills can also decrease the effects of anticoagulants and increase your risk of developing a blood clot.
If you are on a blood thinner, partner with your healthcare provider to ensure your diet isn’t affecting the drug’s efficacy and be sure to share all of the medications you are taking to avoid complications.
Your doctor may also tell you to limit your participation in contact sports to reduce the risk of bleeding. This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t exercise or live a normal life.
Activities such as swimming, walking, and jogging are excellent forms of exercise and are safe for most people taking blood thinners. It’s best to discuss with your doctor which types of exercise may be right for you.
Blood thinners can help blood flow smoother through your arteries and veins and reduce your risk for developing dangerous blood clots, but only if you partner with your healthcare provider to take them as directed and in combination with the appropriate diet.