Atherosclerosis, the hardening and thickening of artery walls that restricts blood flow, is not a disease in its own right, yet it’s presence invites all the heavy hitters including coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure, stroke and peripheral vascular disease. Athero – an ‘atheroma’ or plaque, and ‘sclerosis’ a hardening of the artery wall.
- Very often there are no symptoms that your arteries are closing up.
- Chest pain or discomfort. But the pain can also be felt in the upper back, arms and neck.
- Shortness of breath.
- Fatigue with activity or light exercise.
History of a heart attack
Lining each artery is the epithelium. As a result of high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking or free radical damage the epithelium becomes damaged. As a kind of band-aid, cholesterol molecules and other fats patch over the wound, creating a fatty streak. Smooth muscle cells smooth over the fatty streak, creating an often unstable cap. If and when the cap is dislodged, platelets gather forming a clot, much like a scab on the skin. This internal clot is called a thrombus. This thrombus can completely block the artery, or start flowing down the arteries, causing blockage further along. No cell in the body can live without blood providing oxygen and nutrients. If the artery supplying the heart (coronary artery) becomes blocked, this results in a heart attack or myocardial infarct. Blocked arteries to the brain result in a stroke.
What causes it?
- Age – the older you get, in the industrialised west, the greater the chance of having atherosclerosis.
- Being male – men have a greater risk of atherosclerosis. Women are more protected especially prior to menopause.
- Family history – as always, there is a genetic predisposition to this disease also.
- High blood pressure. Both cause and symptom of atherosclerosis. High blood pressure can cause the initial injury to the lining of the artery (epithelium), and can make matter worse by dislodging the cap and causing a thrombus to form.
- Obesity and diabetes, the altered fats and sugars in the bloodstream.
- Physical inactivity. People who don’t exercise are twice as likely to die of heart attacks as people who do. Regular exercise strengthens the heart muscle, reduces blood pressure and helps to lower body weight.
- Cigarette smoking. Cigarette smoking constricts blood vessels, and the chemicals inhaled cause damage to the artery wall.
- Alcohol. A couple of drinks a day lowers your risk, more than this increases your chances of atherosclerosis.
- Stress. Hostility outrates other risk factors including smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. The classic Type A stress personality is more aggressive, achievement-oriented and a ‘go-getter’. In addition, stress decreases HDL levels and increases blood fats, making the blood stickier.
A strange little sign, which is an early warning of atherosclerosis is the ‘earlobe crease’: a slightly curved vertical crease on the lower, fleshy part of the earlobe. If your earlobe looks a little creased, have a check-up. Another predictive sign of cardiovascular disease is found in the eye, known as arcus senilis, arcus cornealis or among iridologists as a cholesterol ring, a greyish white arc around the upper segment of the iris. Don’t freak out if you find these signs, rather, be thankful for a sign to step up your exercise and spruce up your diet.
What to do
- Vegetarians are less prone to heart disease. Vegetable protein, found in legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, appears to be more protective for the artery wall than animal flesh protein.
- Garlic is beaut for atherosclerosis as well as the whole box and dice of heart disease. Proven to help prevent atherosclerotic changes from occuring, also reduces blood fats and improves blood flow. Cooked garlic is as helpful as raw on this occasion.
- Nitric oxide helps to dilate blood vessels. Foods that increase natural nitric oxide production and are jam-packed full of antioxidants include grapes and berries, red wine, garlic, soy beans, cocoa, tea (green and black) olive oil, pomegranate.
- Reduce Sodium. Sodium is linked with high blood pressure, high blood pressure is linked to atherosclerosis. Don’t add salt (sodium chloride) to your meals and eat as little processed food (where most salt is found in the diet) as you can.
- Alcohol. One to two drinks daily is protective against heart disease. More is not. Desist.
Nathan Pritikin, an American engineer, started the ball rolling in 1955, when he was told by a specialist that his arteries were in bad shape, and that if he wanted to avoid dying from a heart attack, he would have to take cholesterol-lowering drugs and stop exercising for the rest of his life. Pritikin, who was only 43, decided this was not for him and immersed himself in research about his condition. He put himself on a strict low-fat, high-carbohydrate-vegetarian diet styled on that of the Tarahumara Indians in north west Mexico and the hill tribes in Papua New Guinea and began a wicked exercise regime. His book, The Pritikin Diet, became a best-seller.
Nathan Pritikin died in 1985, by his own hand, after finding out that he was suffering a relapse of leukaemia. However, an autopsy found that his arteries were free of any sign of atherosclerosis, upholding the validity of his life’s work. Ironically, the high carbohydrate diet adopted by government agencies and heart foundations of the United States, United Kingdom and Australia have inadvertantly created further public health epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Nice one, Nathan.
Pritikin took fat reduction too far. Recent studies have shown that extremely low cholesterol levels have been linked to increased risk of suicide. If we decrease fat in our diet excessively, we risk the chance of hormonal disturbances, immune system problems, deficiency of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and nervous system dysfunction. Since the Pritikin days, fat is the new black, and we now know that certain fats are positively protective against heart disease. Particularly the kinds of fats found in fish, coconuts, avocadoes, nuts and seeds.
- Herbs found to help prevent and treat atherosclerosis include astragalus, ginkgo, tea, turmeric, globe artichoke, American ginseng.
- If you don’t regularly include garlic in your diet. Rethink. Or take a daily freeze-dried whole garlic supplement.
- Magnesium allows muscles to relax, including the smooth muscle that surrounds arteries.
- Niacin. Vitamin B3 has been successful in helping to treat atherosclerosis. However, the doses are quite high (2 to 3 g day) and can cause uncomfortable flushing. There are slower release tablets available
- Don’t just think about it, you must start managing your stress. Do something for it every day such as walking, tapestry, knitting, singing, meditation, rock-climbing, yoga, dancing, counselling.
- Lose weight if necessary.
- Stop smoking. Another reason.
- Exercise. Regular aerobic exercise (jogging, cycling, fast walking) decreases the ‘bad’ cholestrol levels or LDL levels and most atherosclerosis risk factors.
- Buteyko breathing helps lower blood pressure and increase nitric oxide levels
At a glance
- Increase garlic in your diet as it reduces blood fats and improves blood flow, a heart-winning combination.
- Eat foods high in antioxidants and nitric oxide, both of which help prevent atherosclerosis – grapes and berries, red wine, garlic, soy beans, cocoa, tea (green and black), olive oil, pomegranate.
- Decrease salt. Sodium increases blood pressure, not a good look if your arteries are already compromised.
- Have a cuppa or two. Tea, whether it be green or black (oolong or white) helps prevent damage to the artery walls.
- Herbs helpful in the treatment of atherosclerosis astragalus, ginkgo, turmeric, globe artichoke, American ginseng.
- Magnesium is a muscle relaxant. Arteries walls are made of muscle. Magnesium will help to dilate and relax them.
- Regular aerobic exercise is vital, whether it be cycling, jogging or gym classes.
- Stress is a major factor in heart disease. Find ways with which to reduce and handle your stress.
- Lose weight if you are carrying excess kilograms.
- Still smoking? Stop being a twit.