When you think of cardiovascular disease, what comes to mind? Cholesterol? Blood pressure? Stress?
The truth is, your cardiovascular system is only as healthy as your arteries, the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood away from the heart to other parts of the body. When arteries are damaged—a condition called atherosclerosis—blood flow can be impeded or even blocked.
Atherosclerosis develops in stealth mode, as plaque builds up along the endothelium, or inside lining, of the arteries. Plaque is a fatty substance made of cholesterol, calcium, cellular waste, and a blood-clotting material called fibrin. Over time, it can damage the arterial lining and cause arteries to become narrow and stiff. As plaque silently grows, it can reduce blood flow to the heart, brain, and other parts of the body. And if it becomes unstable, plaque can rupture, causing a blood clot that can trigger a heart attack or stroke.
Reducing plaque-causing risk factors is the first step in the fight against atherosclerosis (see "Risk Management," p. 38), but there are other things you can do to improve artery health. Adopting a diet rich in fruits and vegetables—and low in unhealthy fats and sugars—is a start, along with practicing portion control, exercising for at least 30 minutes per day, and learning to manage stress.
Supplements can also help. Here are some of the most effective:
- Aged Garlic Extract (AGE): This pungent herb lowers blood pressure, prevents inflammation, and improves blood vessel elasticity. But its benefits don’t stop there. Scientists recently discovered that it can significantly reduce coronary artery calcification that contributes to reduced blood
flow and less flexibility.
- Alpha-lipoic Acid (ALA): This vitamin-like antioxidant protects against free radicals that damage the endothelium. According to scientists from Oregon State University and the University of Washington, it also helps extinguish inflammation, prevent plaque formation, and lower triglycerides. Preliminary research suggests that it might even aid in weight loss.
- Fish Oil: Fish oil’s ability to protect blood vessels comes from two omega-3 fats: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Studies show that they help reduce blood pressure and triglyceride levels, and modulate many of the mechanisms of atherosclerosis, including inflammation, clotting, and platelet aggregation.
- Niacin: In an analysis of seven trials involving more than 5,000 patients, researchers confirmed that taking niacin can raise HDL levels by up to 35 percent. Other studies suggest that niacin prevents cells from clumping together and sticking to artery walls. Be aware that immediate-release supplements can cause flushing. You can help prevent this by taking niacin at bedtime along with stinging nettle. It’s also wise to take niacin under a doctor’s supervision since it may affect liver function in therapeutic doses.
- Quercetin: Population-based studies have found that people with high intakes of quercetin—found in green tea, apples, citrus fruits, and leafy green vegetables—tend to have lower rates of heart disease. One reason is that this antioxidant has the ability to prevent inflammation, dilate blood vessels, and reduce plaque buildup. In one study, quercetin reduced the size of atherosclerotic lesions by an impressive 52 percent.
- Resveratrol: Research shows that resveratrol, which is found naturally in grape skin, has a direct effect on the health of the cells lining blood vessels. It triggers the release of nitric oxide, which plays a key role in blood vessel relaxation, and it also helps lower LDL cholesterol and prevent platelets from clumping together inside blood vessels. Taken together, this strongly suggests that resveratrol can significantly improve vascular function and help prevent atherosclerosis.
So what causes plaque to form in the first place? Advancing age and a family history of heart disease definitely play a role. But the biggest risk factors are things that are within our ability to control. They include:
- Blood pressure. The higher your blood pressure, the more your arteries swell and stretch. This injures the endothelium, causing plaque to accumulate at a faster rate.
- Cholesterol. High levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol contribute to the buildup of arterial plaque. But that's not the whole story. Low levels of HDL also play a role, since this "good" cholesterol is thought to help eliminate LDL from the body.
Diabetes. High blood sugar drives inflammation in the endothelium and slows blood flow.
- Obesity. Not only does excess weight increase the odds of developing high cholesterol and blood pressure, it also triggers inflammation. Losing just 5—10 pounds can benefit artery health.
- Smoking. Cigarette smoke constricts blood vessels and slows circulation. The carbon monoxide from smoke also creates free radicals that damage the endothelium and promote plaque buildup. In addition, nicotine causes the growth of new blood vessels inside existing blood vessels that provide nutrients to plaque.
Enzymatic Therapy Artery Advantage - Focus on artery health with this comprehensive formula, which includes B vitamins, garlic, folic acid, and vitamin K.
Minami Nutrition MorEPA- These fish oil softgels are a concentrated source of EPA, which is thought to be especially beneficial for cardiovascular health.
Michael's Naturopathic Programs Cardio Pack - Being heart smart is simple with these individual daily packs with resveratrol, CoQ10, fish oil, and vitamin D3. Grab one pack and you are good to go.
North American Herb & Spice Resvera-Flo - Made from purple muscadine berry and wild, raw northern American grape, this liquid can be added to juice or water, or added to yogurt or a smoothie.
Solgar Platinum Edition Nutri-Nano CoQ-10 Alpha Lipoic Acid - Get two powerful heart-health nutrients in one great formula. You can take one to two softgels daily.