Heart health is never a subject to take lightly. It is the leading cause of mortality in the US, accounting for 1 in 4 deaths (1). What makes heart disease fatal is the progressive buildup of plaques in the arteries, narrowing their inner walls, restricting and ultimately blocking blood flow from the heart to different tissues in the body. As soon as plaque buildup and blood flow become inhibited, these clogged arteries may cause complications like heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases.
So how does this happen? What are the possible causes and who are at risk? Is there something you can do to reverse plaque buildup and keep your arteries healthy? Read on to know more.
What Is Atherosclerosis?
Arteries carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body. They are lined with a thin layer of cells known as the endothelium, which keeps them smooth and allows blood to flow easily.
The term atherosclerosis was coined from the Greek words “athero,” which means paste and “sclerosis,” which translates to hardness. This explains why the condition is also known as hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis occurs when the endothelium becomes damaged, allowing fat and calcium to accumulate in the artery wall. The body will normally send white blood cells known as macrophages to clean up this buildup, but sometimes these cells get stuck at the affected site too, adding to the narrowing of the vessel. Over time, they will form a substance called plaque.
While some plaques stop growing, causing no harm to people, others grow bigger and clog up the artery, disrupting blood flow around the body. Plaques may also break open. If this occurs, platelets gathered in the affected area may aggregate to form blood clots. This further blocks the artery, causing more serious complications like stroke and heart attack.
Atherosclerosis may affect an entire artery tree, but they are more common in bigger, high-pressure arteries.
How Does Atherosclerosis Happen?
Theory suggests that atherosclerosis occurs as a result of repetitive injury to the inner lining of an artery. This injury can be caused by several things, which includes the following:
- Physical stress caused by high blood pressure (2).
- Response to infection
- Oxidative damage to the lining of an artery brought about by free radicals, which are formed when oxygen reacts with LDL or bad cholesterol (3).
- Oxidized LDL cholesterol that promotes inflammatory reactions that clog the artery lining with debris
- Smoking as the nicotine and carbon monoxide content of tobacco makes it simpler for cholesterol-carrying lipoproteins to reach the artery walls, encouraging the formation of fibrous plaques and blood clots (4).
- Aging also makes it difficult for your heart and blood vessels to pump and receive blood. As they weaken and lose elasticity, they become more susceptible to plaque formation.
- Genetic variations like mutations or common polymorphisms have also been shown to be involved in modulation of different risk factors like inflammation, vascular calcification, and plasma lipoprotein levels. Family history is considered to be the most significant independent risk factor for coronary artery disease (5).
Who Are At Risk?
As mentioned earlier, several factors play a role in increasing your risk for atherosclerosis. Some can be modified, while others can’t.
- If atherosclerosis runs in your family, you are at risk too!
- Lack of exercise and living a sedentary lifestyle increases your risk for a host of medical conditions, which includes heart disease
- High blood pressure damages your blood vessels and makes them weak in certain areas. Cholesterol and other blood substances may reduce their flexibility over time.
- People with diabetes are twice as likely to suffer from atherosclerosis, heart attack, or stroke. Blood sugar can produce more free radicals to cause premature cell death and decrease the availability of nitric oxide, which is important for blood vessel relaxation and blood flow (6).
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Atherosclerosis?
The initial signs of atherosclerosis may start to appear during adolescence. A common observation would be the presence of white blood cells streaks on an artery wall. Others will not present with any symptoms until a plaque ruptures, or when blood flow is very limited. This usually takes years to occur. Symptoms may also vary depending on which arteries are affected.
Carotid arteries supply blood to the brain. Restricted blood flow to this area may cause stroke, and patients may experience a wide range of symptoms like:
- Facial numbness
- Trouble speaking and understanding speech
- Vision problems
- Loss of balance
- Difficulty breathing
- In severe cases, paralysis
Coronary arteries deliver blood to the heart. When supply becomes limited, angina and heart attack may ensue. Symptoms would include:
- Chest pain
- Pain in the jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, and back
- Abdominal pain
- Shortness of breath
- Extreme anxiety
- A sense of impending doom
Renal arteries supply blood to the kidneys. Restricting blood supply to these organs is a serious risk for developing chronic kidney disease. A blockage in a renal artery will cause you to have:
- Loss of appetite
- Swelling of the hands and extremities
- Difficulty concentrating
How Is It Diagnosed?
Your doctor will do a comprehensive physical exam if you have symptoms of atherosclerosis. They would normally look for:
- A weakened pulse
- An abnormal bulging or widening of an artery brought about by the weakness of its walls (aneurysm)
- A slow-healing wound, which indicates limited blood flow
A cardiologist would also look for any abnormal heart sounds. A whooshing noise would indicate that an artery is blocked. More tests may be requested, including:
- A blood test to check your cholesterol levels
- A Doppler ultrasound to check if an artery has a blockage
- An ankle-brachial index (ABI) to check for any blockage in your arms or extremities
- An MRI or CTA to view large arteries in your body
- A cardiac angiogram, a type of chest X-ray, to get a clear view of your heart arteries using a radioactive dye
- An ECG or EKG to measure the electrical activity of your heart and look for any areas of decreased blood flow
- A stress test to monitor your heart rate and BP while exercising
What Are the Treatment Options?
Medications can help prevent atherosclerosis from worsening. In most cases, the following are prescribed:
- Cholesterol-lowering agents like statins and fibrates
- ACE inhibitors to help prevent narrowing of the arteries
- Beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, or diuretics to lower your BP
- Anticoagulants and antiplatelet drugs like aspirin to avoid blood clots
Aspirin is particularly effective if you have a history of atherosclerotic cardiovascular diseases like stroke and heart attack. An aspirin regimen can greatly decrease your risk of having another episode. However, if you have no prior history of these diseases, it is best to only use aspirin as a preventive medication if your risk of bleeding is low.
If symptoms are especially severe that they can no longer be controlled by medications, or if muscles and skin tissues are endangered, surgery may be required. Possible surgeries that can help treat atherosclerosis include:
- A bypass surgery will make use of a vessel from somewhere else in your body or a synthetic tube to divert blood around a narrowed or blocked artery
- Thrombolytic therapy will help dissolve blood clots by injecting a drug directly into the affected artery
- Angioplasty involves the use of a catheter and a balloon to expand your artery. In some cases, a stent may be inserted to keep the artery open.
- Endarterectomy will help remove fatty deposits in your artery
- Atherectory is recommended to remove plaque from your arteries through the use of a catheter and a sharp blade on one end
Can Atherosclerosis Be Treated Naturally?
Aside from the above-mentioned medical treatment options, changing your current lifestyle can greatly help in decreasing your risk of developing atherosclerosis. See the tips below:
1. Move More!
Exercise can help improve your cardiovascular health and prevent cardiac issues. Physical activity is considered to be one of the best preventive measures for atherosclerosis (7). Even if you are not physically active, it is never too late to start slow. Try going for a walk once or twice weekly. If that fits into your schedule, aim for more walks.
There’s no need to rush. buildup your routine and stamina slowly. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least 5 times weekly. It is also very important to discuss with your doctor your planned exercise regimen before starting.
2. Lose Weight Healthily
Eating better and exercising more would make you lose weight naturally. Carrying excess pounds normally increases your LDL cholesterol, which makes you at risk for plaque buildup. Losing as little as 5-10% of your body weight can have a huge impact on your health. It will help improve your BP and blood cholesterol and sugar levels (8).
3. Stop Smoking
Smoking is one of the most important modifiable risk factors for the development of cardiovascular diseases, including coronary artery disease and atherosclerosis. Cigarette smoking can induce oxidative stress, platelet coagulation, inflammation of the vessels, and impair lipid profiles in both active and passive smokers (9). You have to stop smoking and avoid second-hand smoke to avoid the detrimental effects it has on the cardiovascular system.
4. Drink in Moderation
Studies are consistent in saying that the adverse and beneficial effects of alcohol on arterial diseases are dose-dependent. Occasional drinking, which is less than once a week, did not affect atherogenesis, while heavy drinkers or binge drinking, which is equal to 7 drinks daily, twice weekly or 100 grams or more per day, had greater risks for the development of the disease (10, 11, 12). These are definitive enough for experts to encourage people to drink for heart health. If you cannot avoid it, drink occasionally and in moderation!
5. Eat Heart-Healthy Foods
A few changes in your diet can help reduce cholesterol, decrease your risk of atherosclerosis, and improve your heart health. Generally, you must:
- Reduce saturated fats
- Avoid trans fats
- Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids
- Increase soluble fiber
- Add whey protein
Here’s a list of the best foods and drinks you can take to free your arteries of buildups:
It looks like there is nothing avocados can’t do! This heart-healthy fruit can increase your “good” cholesterol levels while lowering the bad ones. Did you also know that they are also chock-full of potassium, way more than bananas? They can help prevent vascular calcification in your arteries and lower your risks of cardiovascular diseases!
Start replacing the mayo in your sandwiches and salad with avocado! If you are a fan of smoothies, you can also get your daily dose of avocado by adding it to your favorite blended drink.
While some kind of fat should be clearly avoided, fish packed with unsaturated fats is perfect for your health! They contain omega-3 fatty acids, which can help decrease your triglyceride levels and reduce your risk of cardiac death.
Eat salmon, mackerel, or tuna at least 4 times weekly!
Nuts are a powerhouse when it comes to heart health! They are rich in fiber, unsaturated fats, and vitamins. Almonds, Brazil nuts, and cashews also contain high amounts of magnesium, which hinders buildups and cholesterol plaques in the arteries.
Experts recommend 3-5 servings of nuts weekly (12). How about getting your regular doses by creating your own trail mix? Sounds fun!
I am pretty sure you are quite tired of hearing about healthy fats. But, they are really healthy and delicious! One of the most versatile products you can use is olive oil. It contains monounsaturated oleic acid that can help protect your heart and greatly lower your risk of stroke and other cardiovascular diseases.
Who doesn’t love coffee? The aroma and the taste will just light you up every morning! Did you know that coffee can also help keep your arteries clean? Evidence shows that drinking 3 cups daily can significantly decrease your risk of getting clogged arteries (13). If coffee isn’t your cup of tea, try green tea!
While drinking 3 cups isn’t a problem, it is important that you stay away from adding sugars or too much cream. Make your drink as healthy and beneficial as possible!
Have you heard of turmeric? It is all over the news for the past few months and years. This contains powerful anti-inflammatory compounds that can help secure your artery walls from injuries or any damage. As mentioned previously, inflammation has a direct effect on atherosclerosis. A study on rats showed that this antioxidant-rich spice could help reduce fatty deposits in the arteries by 25% or more (14).
The best way to add turmeric to your diet is by preparing a tea!
Pomegranate juice is good for your heart! With its high antioxidant contents, it has been shown to clear clogged arteries and improve blood flow (15).
Get 100% pure pomegranate juice with no added sugar or munch on pomegranate seeds during snack time. The juice can also be added to favorite smoothies or mixed into a festive cocktail. Some also enjoy sprinkling the seeds on their favorite oatmeal during breakfast.
Of course, we know that citrus is rich in vitamin C and antioxidants. Both play a powerful role in reducing heart disease risk and protecting arterial walls (16, 17). Drink plenty of lemon water all day long or start your day with some slices of fresh oranges and grapefruit.
The dietary fiber present in whole grains can help improve your blood cholesterol levels and protect your heart against diseases (20). Recent studies have also found that whole grains are associated with thinner carotid artery walls (21). This is great because thickening can cause buildup and increases your risks for stroke and other heart diseases.
It is highly recommended that women take 25 grams of fiber daily and 34 grams for men (22). Get at least half of your supply from whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, barley, and whole-grain pasta (23).
Similar to whole grains, broccoli is also rich in fiber. Cruciferous greens like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower have been proven to specifically help avoid clogged arteries.
Asparagus is yet another best food to cleanse your arteries. Full-packed with fiber and minerals, it can lower your BP and prevent blood clots, which are serious causes of cardiovascular diseases. It can help alleviate inflammation. It also has alpha-linoleic acid and folic acid that can help prevent the hardening of your arteries. It has been shown to regulate cholesterol metabolism and improve antioxidant status in rats (24).
There are several great recipes for asparagus! You can steam, roast, or grill it! Some even like it raw in their salads!
Who doesn’t love watermelon, especially when it is summertime? This natural source of amino acid L-citrulline can help increase the production of nitric oxide in the body. This will help relax the arteries, decrease inflammation, and lower your BP. It has also shown to modify blood lipids and lowers belly fat accumulation (25, 26).
Eat it fresh after chilling or blend it to make juice!
If you are at risk of getting arterial blockages, now is the best time to get healthy! There are a lot of things that you can do to prevent buildup. A good lifestyle, which includes consuming the right foods and drinks, exercising more, losing weight healthily, quitting smoking, and drinking moderately, can help you become healthier overall!