When you think of cardiovascular disease, what comes to mind? Cholesterol? Your blood pressure? The truth is, your cardiovascular system is only as healthy as your arteries. Your arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood away from the heart to other parts of the body. When these arteries become damaged—a condition called atherosclerosis—blood flow can be impeded or even completely blocked.
Atherosclerosis occurs in stealth mode over many years as plaque builds up along the inside lining of the arteries—also called the endothelium—and surprisingly it can begin to develop as early as childhood. Plaque is a fatty substance made up of cholesterol, calcium, cellular waste, and a blood-clotting material called fibrin which causes the endothelium tissue to malfunction. Over time it accumulates, damaging the arterial lining and causing the arteries to become narrow and stiff. As plaque silently grows, it can eventually reduce blood flow to the heart, brain, and other parts of the body. If plaque becomes unstable it can rupture, causing a blood clot to form that can block off the artery completely and trigger a heart attack or stroke.
What causes plaque to form in the first place? Advancing age and a family history of heart disease play a role. But the biggest risk factors are things that are within your ability to control. They include:
- High 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.
- High cholesterol. High levels of so-called “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 in atherosclerosis since this “good” cholesterol is thought to divert LDL cholesterol away from your arteries so it can be eliminated from the body by the liver.
- 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 chronic inflammation. Losing just 5 or 10 pounds can help keep arteries healthy.
- 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.
Reducing these risk factors is the first step in the fight against atherosclerosis. Adopting a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in unhealthy fats and sugar is a great place to begin. Other heart smart strategies include practicing portion control, exercising for at least 30 minutes most days of the week, and learning to manage stress. And if you smoke, do whatever you can to quit.
Supplements can help give you an edge over atherosclerosis, too. Here are some of the most effective:
Aged Garlic Extract
This pungent herb lowers blood pressure, prevents inflammation, and improves the elasticity of blood vessel walls. Because of its antioxidant potential, aged garlic also reduces the oxidation of LDL cholesterol. But aged garlic’s benefits don’t stop there. In addition to its impact on blood pressure, cholesterol, and inflammation, a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial recently found that this multi-tasking herb can significantly reduce coronary artery calcification that contributes to reduced blood flow and less flexibility.
Alpha Lipoic Acid
Often called the universal nutrient because it is soluble in both fat and water, this vitamin-like antioxidant protects against free radicals that can damage the endothelium. Alpha lipoic acid can also re-activate other heart-healthy antioxidants, including glutathione and vitamin C. But that’s only one of the many ways this potent nutrient can keep your arteries healthy. According to scientists from Oregon State University and the University of Washington, alpha lipoic acid also helps to extinguish inflammation, prevent plaque formation in blood vessels, and lower triglycerides. As a bonus, preliminary research suggests that it might even aid in weight loss.
The secret to fish oil’s ability to protect blood vessels comes from two omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Numerous studies show that these two omega-3s help reduce high blood pressure and triglyceride levels. They also modulate many of the mechanisms of atherosclerosis, including inflammation, blood clotting, and platelet aggregation (stickiness). To ensure you’re getting all of the heart-healthy advantages fish oil has to offer, it’s smart to add an EPA/DHA fish oil supplement to your supplement routine every day.
This old nutrient has discovered new life after a number of studies linked it to improved vascular health. In one analysis of seven trials involving more than 5,000 patients, researchers at Chicago Medical School confirmed that taking niacin can raise HDL levels by up to 35 percent in people with coronary artery disease. Other studies suggest that niacin prevents cells from clumping together and sticking to artery walls. Be aware that immediate release supplements (the most effective for raising HDL) can cause flushing. You can help prevent this by taking your niacin at bedtime along with a dose of stinging nettles. It’s also wise to take niacin under a doctor’s supervision since, like statin drugs, it may affect liver function at therapeutic doses.
This powerful polyphenol can be found in green tea as well as apples, citrus fruits, onions, and leafy green vegetables. Because of quercetin’s robust antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, increasing your levels through diet and supplements may help enhance overall heart health. In fact, population-based studies have found that people with high intakes of quercetin 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 the buildup of plaque. Quercetin slows chemical reactions that cause large macrophages to cluster on artery walls, reducing LDL oxidation and risk of plaque formation. In one study, quercetin reduced the size of atherosclerotic lesions by an impressive 52 percent.
Resveratrol is another polyphenol with artery-protective properties. Found in red wine and in the skin of grapes, research suggests that resveratrol has a direct effect on the health of the cells lining blood vessels. It also triggers the release of nitric oxide, which plays a key role in the relaxation of blood vessels. Resveratrol also helps lower LDL cholesterol and prevents blood platelets from clumping together inside blood vessels.