Different forms of arteriosclerosis are the primary causes of heart disease and strokes. It’s a disease that progresses slowly and can start as early as childhood.
Thanks to numerous studies and advancements in technology, we now have a clearer understanding of the complex molecular mechanisms that lead to arterial and coronary heart diseases. Strong evidence shows that there’s a connection between certain lifestyle factors and cholesterol metabolism, the dangerous development of atherosclerotic plaque and chronic diseases that affect so many people every single year.
While in the past heart disease might have been largely attributed to genetic factors and was viewed as an inevitable part of aging, the focus has now shifted to empowering adults to help prevent heart-related problems by adjusting their diets, exercise routines, stress levels and mindsets.
What Is Arteriosclerosis?
Arteriosclerosis is a heart condition that occurs when the blood vessels become thick and stiff. Normally in a healthy person, arteries are flexible and elastic, which allows for good circulation and nutrient distribution. However, over time, as someone ages or her health deteriorates from a combination of factors, the walls of the arteries can start to harden.
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, arteriosclerosis may begin when specific factors damage the inner layers of the arteries. These factors include:
- High amounts of certain fats and cholesterol in the blood
- High blood pressure
- High amounts of sugar in the blood due to insulin resistance or diabetes
Although it’s considered a heart (or vascular) problem primarily, thickening of the arteries can happen anywhere in the body. Because the main blood vessels flowing to and from your heart have the crucial role of carrying oxygen and nutrients throughout your body, this condition is considered very serious and can become deadly.
When your arteries become stiff, they start restricting blood flow to your major organs, muscles and tissues, which can lead to a sudden heart attack, stroke, organ failure and other issues.
Arteriosclerosis vs. Atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis, which occurs when there’s a buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances (usually called plaque) in the artery walls, is one specific type of arteriosclerosis that is tied to heart attacks. Many people use the terms interchangeably because both result in a dangerous restriction in blood flow and raise the risk for cardiac arrest.
When someone develops atherosclerosis, plaque buildups can form blood clots that eventually burst. However, not all cases of arteriosclerosis involve blood clots or lead to heart attacks. In fact, for many people with mild or early forms of arteriosclerosis don’t even cause any noticeable symptoms at all. Because the disease forms gradually and can accompany weight gain or someone getting older, it’s easy to brush aside symptoms, which can unfortunately lead to the disease worsening over time.
Many people won’t have atherosclerosis symptoms until an artery is so narrowed or clogged that it can’t supply adequate blood to organs and tissues. At this time, it’s possible to have a transient ischemic attack, which is a mild heart attack that is capable of progressing to a more serious stroke or heart failure.
There are three main types of related diseases that fall into the broader category of arteriosclerosis: atherosclerosis, Mönckeberg medial calcific sclerosis and arteriolosclerosis.
When someone does experience symptoms of arteriosclerosis, these can include:
- chest pain or pressure (angina)
- sudden numbness or weakness in your arms or legs
- difficulty speaking or slurred speech
- drooping muscles in your face
- leg pain when walking
- high blood pressure or kidney failure
- erectile dysfunction, difficulties having sex or pain around the genitals
Epidemiological studies have revealed several important lifestyle, environmental and genetic risk factors associated with arteriosclerosis. Most importantly, there’s a tie between all of these factors: chronic inflammation, the major cause of disease. We have clear evidence that atherosclerosis is a chronic inflammatory condition that is largely triggered by a poor diet, sedentary lifestyle and high levels of stress — or chronic stress.
These factors come together to cause endothelial disruption over time, build up plaque deposits that can rupture and possibly cause sudden life-threatening attacks. At the root cause of arteriosclerosis is endothelial (blood vessel) dysfunction that begins when inflammation levels rise. The endothelium has the purpose of causing relaxation and constriction responses in vascular smooth muscles by releasing and regulating compounds called nitric oxide (NO) and endothelium-derived contracting factors (EDCF). This process is what helps blood flow properly throughout the body when someone’s healthy.
The endothelial release of NO and EDCF is reduced in people who have diabetes and hypertension. Arteries lose their sensitivity to these compounds as inflammation builds. At the same time, inflammation is also tied to other cardiovascular risk factors, including vasospasms (sudden constriction of blood flow), thrombosis (formation of blood clots), penetration of macrophages (white blood cells that attack areas of infection) and abnormal cellular growth.
Essentially, when your inflammation levels remain high, your arteries become damaged and your body sees this as a sign that it needs to repair itself. It sends compounds including cholesterol and white blood cells to your arteries in order to help repair the problem, but if this continues on for prolonged periods, “plaque” of these compounds can accumulate and other substances (like calcium, for example) can become stuck in your arteries.
Making lifestyle changes can help prevent or treat atherosclerosis because it targets inflammation. For some people, these changes are the only treatment needed. Overall, the goals of a “heart-healthy” diet and lifestyle are to eat foods that help maintain appropriate levels of cholesterol, blood pressure and fatty molecules called lipids, plus to maintain a healthy weight and reduce inflammation naturally.
Some of the ways health professionals typically go about monitoring risk factors for arteriosclerosis, or heart disease in general, include:
- Focusing on increasing high-density lipoproteins (HDL), which is the “good cholesterol” beneficial for the heart.
- Reducing harmful lipids (fatty molecules) like triglycerides and lipoprotein.
- Lowering total high cholesterol levels and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). High LDL cholesterol has been linked to higher risks for heart disease for several decades, although recent research shows this isn’t necessarily the case.
When it comes to dietary changes, the focus is usually on lowering intake of fat, cholesterol and salt, and adopting a healing diet. The DASH Diet, for example, is an eating plan focused on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. DASH also emphasizes fat-free or low-fat milk and dairy products, fish and poultry, while limiting red meats (including lean red meats), sweets, added sugars, artificial sweeteners and sugar-containing beverages.
While many of these are smart suggestions, standard “heart-healthy diets” usually don’t include recent findings on how all different types of natural fats can be beneficial for heart health or how removing processed and packaged foods might be the single most important step someone can take to fight inflammation.
1. Eat Healthy Sources of Fats
All types of fats aren’t bad — in fact, natural fats of all kinds can help fight chronic inflammation. For example, diets that include plenty of monounsaturated fat have been linked to a lower rate of coronary heart disease. Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) can help decrease LDL-cholesterol plasma levels when they replace certain saturated fats, trans-fats and refined carbohydrates. High intakes of monounsaturated fats from natural sources like beneficial avocados and olive oil are now being advocated to prevent cardiovascular diseases of all types.
Evidence from traditional diets of people living in Mediterranean countries shows promising results when it comes to consuming these types of anti-inflammatory fats. People following the Mediterranean diet living in countries like Italy, Greece and Turkey have consumed high quantities of MUFAs for centuries, especially in the form of extra-virgin olive oil.
How many servings of healthy fats daily are necessarily to prevent vascular diseases? The debate is ongoing when it comes to how much fat is ideal and even what types are best. Most people should aim for about 30 percent to 40 percent of their total calories from quality sources of fats, although depending on whom you ask this can number can be lower (in the 25 percent to 35 percent range, according to National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute).
While the percentages and numbers can seen overwhelming, the changes to your diet don’t need to be. First and foremost, try to eliminate trans fats from your diet all together. These are also called “hydrogenated fats” and are found in most commercially baked products and many fast foods. Another important factor is staying away from refined, often rancid vegetable oils (sunflower, safflower, canola, corn and soybean oils, for example) that are normally highly processed.
Recommendations for exact percentages of fat sources is where things get debatable and somewhat unclear. The American Heart Association advises eating fish, especially those containing omega-3 fatty acids like wild-caught salmon, at least twice a week. They also recommend limiting saturated fat and trans fats. Instead of consuming these fats, they suggest replacing them with “better fats” like those that are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. If cholesterol levels are too high, they also recommend lowering saturated fat intake to no more than 5 percent to 6 percent of total calories so for someone on 2,000 calories/day diet, that’s around 13 grams of saturated fat each day.
However, remember that cholesterol is important and even healing in moderation. Normal cholesterol levels are the goal, as low cholesterol can be worse than high levels in some cases. If you have high cholesterol, this is a sign that your body is trying to repair itself and experiencing inflammation, but eating the cholesterol itself isn’t causing the issue. (Learn about what high-cholesterol foods to avoid versus eat.)
2. Limit Refined Carbohydrates and Increase Your Fiber Intake
While healthy fats are important, keep in mind that the most appropriate nutritional model to prevent arteriosclerosis also incorporates other factors of someone’s diet, especially the types of carbohydrates a person eats. Certain carbohydrates are anti-inflammatory foods that provide fiber and important nutrients when you eat them in their natural, whole form. As high-antioxidant foods, they support key elements of heart health like reducing unhealthy cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure levels.
Focus on getting the majority of your carbohydrates from a variety of high-fiber foods, especially vegetables and fruit (including sulfur-containing veggies like leafy greens, cruciferous veggies and onions). These fight free radical damage, provide fiber and help prevent the digestive tract from absorbing cholesterol. High-fiber foods include:
- Vegetables, both non-starchy and starchy (try them in a heart-healthy juice to save time)
- 100 percent whole grains (especially gluten-free grains like rolled oats, quinoa, buckwheat or amaranth)
- Beans and legumes such as kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas and lima beans
And don’t forget there’s a strong link between sugar consumption and heart disease, too. Most U.S. adults consume more added sugar than is recommended for a healthy diet and don’t realize the negative impact this has on their hearts.
Sugar is acidic by nature, inflammatory and messes with arterial functions. When research published in The Journal of The American Medical Association examined trends between added sugar consumption in the U.S. and the association with CVD mortality, researchers found that as sugar intake went up, so did heart CVD risk. These findings were consistent across multiple factors including age, sex, race/ethnicity, educational attainment, physical activity level, health eating index and body mass index.
Others studies show the same: High dietary glycemic load is associated with higher serum triglyceride concentrations and greater risk of coronary heart disease.
Cut down on beverages and foods that contain added sugars of all kinds: agave, corn syrups, sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltrose, dextrose and so on. Maple syrup and raw honey are healthy choices in moderation, but even these need to be monitored. Steer clear of sugar hiding in almost all packaged foods: sweetened cereals, yogurts, bottled drinks, condiments, breads, energy bars, and so on.
And when it comes to alcohol (often another hidden source of sugar), the AHA recommends limiting alcohol to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
3. Get Regular Exercise
Controlling your diet and weight, quitting smoking or drug use, and exercising regularly are considered essential components of any healthy lifestyle program. Exercise benefits your heart by making it stronger and more resilient. It increases your ability to distribute oxygen and nutrients to your organs and cells, helps reduce stress, and can help you maintain a healthy weight — especially when combined with mindful eating.
How much is enough? Try to get at least 30 minutes of daily exercise (preferably 60–90 minutes if it’s low intensity) daily. If you’re healthy enough, you can also try doing shorter but more intense workouts, including high-intensity interval training (HIIT) that are linked to better overall heart health.
Whatever type you choose, do it consistently: Regular exercise is linked to lower atherosclerosis risk factors including LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and high blood pressure. Physical activity also can lower your risk for diabetes and raise your HDL cholesterol levels.
4. Reduce Stress Levels
Stress plays a major negative role in heart health. Research demonstrates that stress raises the risk for a heart attack by causing an overactive amygdala in the brain. The study specifically points out how “stress prompts activation of both the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, leading to increases in circulating catecholamines, glucocorticoids, and (eventually) inflammatory cytokines.”
Anger, insomnia, depression, overeating, anxiety and drug dependence can all raise your risk for arteriosclerosis because of their impact on hormone levels that affect inflammation and, therefore, heart functioning. It’s crucial for every adult to learn how to manage stress, relax, and cope with emotional and physical problems.
Some ideas for lowering the impact of stress in your life? Find a support group you’re interested in, regularly get some physical activity, try mediation, massage therapy or another form of relaxation, and start to use relaxing essential oils.
5. Consider These Supplements
Magnesium is a key nutrient that helps to relax the muscles and balances mineral levels. In vitro studies have linked low magnesium levels to endothelial dysfunction, which precedes arteriosclerosis development. (15)
Often shortened to CoQ10, this supplement helps defend cells from damage by harmful free radicals thanks to having strong antioxidant protection. A human double-blind randomized trial demonstrates how a supplement combining aged garlic and CoQ10 can boost heart health. The human subjects took this supplement for a year, and the researchers found it had beneficial effects on inflammatory markers while also decreasing progression of coronary atherosclerosis.
In vivo research demonstrates that essential oils including thyme, clove, rose, eucalyptus, fennel, and bergamot can lower inflammatory COX-2 enzymes. Ginger essential oil, is another great choice because it contains anti-inflammatory gingerol. To reap the benefits of these oils, you can diffuse them around your home. You can also use them in homemade beauty and cleaning products.
- Arteriosclerosis is a heart condition that occurs when the blood vessels become thick and stiff and it can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
- Many conventional recommendations for artherosclerosis lead people to be fearful of ALL fats, but I highly discourage avoiding all fats since there are so many beneficial fat sources to consume that actually have anti-inflammatory and general health-boosting effects.
- If you are being treated for arteriosclerosis, speak with your healthcare professional before starting any natural remedies, especially if you’re already taken any conventional medications to avoid unwanted interactions.