Getting to the Heart of the matter
All About Atherosclerosis
Arteriosclerosis and Atherosclerosis. These two words should strike fear in the hearts of anyone whose doctor mentions them. These lead to cardiovascular disease, meaning bad news for you and your fear-struck heart. It's the leading cause of death and disability in North America. The good news is that our understanding of these conditions has improved immensely over the past few years and these are mostly preventable.
Arteries carry blood from your heart to your entire body, delivering oxygen and nutrition to every one of your 37.2 trillion cells. When healthy, your arteries are flexible, strong, elastic tubes. High blood pressure can make the walls thick, stiff and restrict blood flow to organs and tissues. This is arteriosclerosis; hardening of the arteries. Atheroma refers to narrowed arteries restricted by fat deposits and scarring.
Atherosclerosis is the one-two punch combination of artery narrowing plaque accompanied by narrowing, stiff, hardened arteries, making it a type of arteriosclerosis (they're often used synonymously). Other names are coronary artery disease, coronary arteriosclerosis and coronary atherosclerosis.
Doctors believe atherosclerosis starts when damage or injury occurs to the inner layer of an artery. High cholesterol, blood pressure, chemical irritants (i.e. nicotine) and vascular diseases like diabetes can all damage this layer. Once damaged, blood cells often clump at the site to repair the damage, causing arterial inflammation. Over time plaque, a fat buildup, accumulates and begins clogging arteries, restricting blood flow and increasing blood pressure. Connecting organs and tissues then suffer reduced blood flow and cells begin to die. From here the plaque can break off and travel, creating blood clots, causing damage elsewhere in your system.
Fortunately this is both preventable and treatable. It takes years or decades for these conditions to develop and starts as early as childhood. Unfortunately waiting for symptoms to surface is a bad idea. Usually it's too late, and arteries can no longer supply adequate amounts of blood to organs and tissues.
Symptoms depend on the affected arteries. Symptoms for arteries of the heart are similar to signs of a heart attack; shortness of breath and chest pain. For arteries leading to the brain, signs are similar to those of a stroke; sudden numbness in your arms or legs, and difficulty speaking. Signs for the arteries in arms and legs are pain when walking or lifting things. Sometimes atherosclerosis also causes erectile dysfunction.
Exercise regularly. Routine activity trains muscles to use oxygen efficiently and improves circulation. It also promotes development of new blood vessels that can potentially bypass any obstructions you may have. Aim for at least 30 minutes each day. Simple tricks (and a pedometer or fitness watch) can help. Take the stairs, walk whenever possible, or park further away, or better yet, just walk to the store.
Avoid smoking, or being around second-hand smoke of any kind. Smoke damages arteries and second-hand smoke is just as harmful as sucking on the cigarette yourself. The same goes for exhaust from cars, trucks and other gas or diesel exhaust.
Smell the flowers and relax! Practice healthy techniques for managing stress to reduce it as much as possible. Yoga, deep breathing, tai chi, even counting to 10 before reacting will help reduce stress and provide healthy outlets.
Eat healthy, but you knew that already. Emphasize high fibre, fresh, and unrefined foods. Minimize foods with sugar, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and avoid processed, artificial foods. Check labels, all the time! Look at what you're putting into your body and pack the most nutrition into the foods you do eat. Add fibre, use natural low-sodium salts and add anti-inflammatory spices like ginger, garlic, curry, tumeric, onion, oregano and rosemary.
Supplement. Generally fresh is best, but when you can't get enough in your diet, supplementing can help make up for the deficiency. Sometimes your diet doesn't provide everything you need due to season, location or because you just don't have enough time. Make sure to read labels and make choices that fit into your lifestyle. Supplements won't benefit you if they only sit on your shelf!
Preventative Supplements to Consider:
Fibre & Vitamin D. We know that low levels of vitamin D and soluble fibre are linked to heart disease and atherosclerosis. Unfortunately, most are deficient in both. Ideally your supplement should contain fibre and vitamin D. Add to your food and drinks daily.
Omega-3. Numerous studies show Omega-3's, specifically the long chain EPA and DHA, reduce triglycerides (fats in your blood) & increase “good” cholesterol levels. They're also anti-inflammatory and can help reduce plaque buildup. EPA & DHA reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease.
Coenzyme Q-10. Also called CoQ10, ubiquinone, or ubiquinol. Our bodies naturally produce this vitamin-like antioxidant for cell function. Age, degenerative diseases and prescriptions, particularly cholesterol medications, decrease natural production. Evidence shows that increased CoQ10 intake helps reduce risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease by improved energy production in cells, inhibited blood clot formation, and its antioxidant properties. Look for ubiquinol, the more bioavailable form of CoQ10, when you choose a supplement.
Garlic. Multiple studies have shown reductions in total blood cholesterol and particularly “bad” cholesterol with the consumption of garlic, particularly in those who regularly consume it raw. Garlic's anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to reduce bad cholesterol contribute to reducing your risk of atherosclerosis.
Vitamin B12 is critical for heart health by aiding in the production of red blood cells and breaking down homocysteine in the blood. Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin (your body can’t produce it) primarily found in red meat. Vegans and vegetarians need to get this vitamin from supplements. Ensure that you use Active Vitamin B12 (the most biologically active form) exclusively.
Green Tea. Numerous clinical trials show that regular consumption of green tea reduces risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease. It lowers total cholesterol and raises "good" cholesterol in people and animals. It is believed that the polyphenol antioxidants in green tea may block the intestinal absorption of cholesterol and promote its excretion from the body.
Atherosclerosis is prevented the same way weight and diabetes are controlled, and the way we preserve good health. There's a reason you've heard these lifestyle choices a hundred times before! Stop smoking, eat healthy, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight, drink less alcohol and supplement well. Making manageable changes one small step at a time goes a long way towards good health.
Joel Thuna, MH, is a master herbalist with over 30 years of experience. Dr. Claude Gallant holds a PhD in Microbiology.