Atherosclerosis (heart disease)
Diet, lifestyle considerations and specific supplementation can support the conventional medical approaches to strengthen blood vessels and reduce plaque.
Complementary TreatmentKey nutritional supplements
- Tocotrienols: Tocotrienols (200 mg per day) fight free radicals causing oxidative damage to LDL cholesterol and may help protext against atherosclerosis.
- See research that details levels of folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 for those patients with high homocystein levels.
- Fish oil: Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil has been associated with favorable changes in various risk factors for atherosclerosis and heart disease (1-2 grams three times per day is often recommended).
- Folic acid: 500-800 mcg per day to lower homocysteine levels.
- Selenium: 100-200 mcg per day.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C may be important in preventing heart disease, but only up to 100-200 mg of intake per day.
- Vitamin E: Vitamin E (400-800 IU per day to prevent oxidative damage to LDL cholesterol) may lower the risk of atherosclerosis and heart attacks.
- Other nutrients - see more information about other nutrients
- Garlic: Garlic has been shown to be an effective anti-atherosclerotic at 900 mg per day (standardized extract); it has been shown to decrease excessive platelet stickiness.
- Fenugreek: (18 grams per day of powder), garlic (600-900 mg per day), guggul (25 mg guggulsterone three times a day), psyllium (5-10 grams per day).
- Green tea (three cups per day [providing 240-320 mg of polyphenols]) has been shown to block oxidation of cholesterol.
- Other herbs - see details about other herbs
The key dietary changes to protect arteries from atherosclerosis include:
- Meat and dairy: Reduce consumption of meat and dairy fat.
- Trans fatty acids: Avoid foods that contain trans fatty acids (margarine, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils).
- Alpha-linolenic acid: Opt for foods rich in alpha-linolenic acid (e.g., canola and flaxseed oils).
- Fiber: Certain fibers are linked to the reduction of cholesterol levels. They are found in oats, psyllium seeds, fruit (pectin), and beans (guar gum).
- Egg-yolks: The science is divided on whether high consumption of egg yolks induces atherosclerosis, independent of their action on serum cholesterol. There is no longer a consensus that people should reduce egg-yolk intake.
- Vegan diet: A vegan diet (i.e., no animal products) combined with exercise and stress reduction has been proven to reduce the incidence of atherosclerosis. (Note: people on a vegan diet need to be sure they are getting enough vitamin B12)
- Salt: Reduce salt consumption.
What is atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, occurs when the walls of the arteries carrying blood from the heart become streaked with fat and hardened deposits of calcium and cholesterol called plaque. Coronary artery disease is the clogging of the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Cerebrovascular disease is the clogging of the arteries supplying blood to the brain, and peripheral artery disease is due to clogged up arteries supplying blood to the extremities. It is likely that high levels of homocysteine, acting together with LDL damages the integrity of artery walls making them more vulnerable.
Who is at Risk?
Although it is important for most people to maintain what is considered normal levels of cholesterol, research has shown that higher levels of cholesterol are not accurate indicators of greater risk of heart attach and/or stroke1. The medical profession now agrees that important risk indicators of heart disease and stroke are high levels of c-reactive protein and homocysteine.
Many key nutritional approaches to protection target lowering serum cholesterol levels. Diabetics also are at high risk and those with elevated triglycerides and homocysteine may also have a higher risk.
Symptoms & Causes
Atherosclerosis begins early in life and by the time symptoms are recognized the conditions are serious.
Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)
Accumulated plaque in the blood vessels carrying oxygen-rich blood to the heart causes CAD. Angina is the chest pain patients feel with heart tissue is deprived of oxygen. If the artery becomes completely blocked, heart tissue cells start to die possibly resulting in a heart attack. The symptoms are often triggered by exertion, emotional or physical stress, sexual activity, cold weather, or anger.
- Chest pain - heavy, squeezing, or crushing feeling with possible stabbing or burning pains
- Abdominal, back, jaw, neck, or arm/shoulder pain especially on the left side
- Vomiting and nausea
- Unexplained fatigue after physical exertion
- Shortness of breath
- Weakness and extreme fatigue
- Anxiety and/or depression
Cerebrovascular Disease (CVD)
Plaque accumulating in the arteries to the brain cause cerebrovascular disease. If the brain tissues are deprived of oxygen brought by the circulatory system, then damage to the brain can occur with transient ischemic attack (sudden loss of brain function quick recovery) or stroke.
- Paralysis or weakness only one side of the body
- Inability to understand speech or garbled speech
- Paralysis or weakness of facial muscles, one side of the face may droop
- Loss of vision in one eye
- Weak muscles
- Impaired senses
- Jerky involuntary motion on one side of the body
- Poor coordination
- Involuntary, quick, repeating eye movement
Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)
Accumulations of plaque in the arteries bringing oxygen-rich blood to the extremities - the arms, hands, legs, feet causes PAD.
- Intermittent claudication - painful cramps, aches, numbness or fatigue in the lower extremity muscles
- Diminished pulses in the extremities
- Muscle mass wasting away or decreasing
- Blowing sounds that the physician hears with a stethoscope indicating blood flow turbulence
- Hair loss and/or thickened fingernails
- Surface of skin is smooth and shiny
- Cold feeling skin to the touch
Prevention is the highest form of treatment for atherosclerosis. Once the disease is established, treatment is directed at the various complications (i.e., angina, heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, and peripheral vascular disease).
Medical treatment strategies can include the following:
- Beta Blockers
- Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting (CABG)
- Fibrinolytic/Thrombolytic Therapy
- Percutaneous Coronary Therapeutic Intervention (PCTA)
- Statin Therapy
Lifestyle changes that may be helpful
- Yoga Research indicates that 12 minutes of daily yoga leads to reduction of inflammation - an issue in heart disease.
- Smoking: Smoking is directly linked to atherosclerosis. Quitting smoking is a critical step in the process of heart disease prevention.
- Weight loss: Obesity and type A behavior (time conscious, impatient, and aggressive) are both associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis.
- Exercise: Exercise is linked to protection from atherosclerosis.
- Ginseng2 has been found to be useful in reducing plaque and supporting coronary health.
Research & Footnotes
1. Yoo JH, Chung CS, Kang SS. Relation of plasma homocyst(e)ine to cerebral infarction and cerebral atherosclerosis. Stroke. Dec 1998
2. Panax notoginseng saponins inhibits atherosclerotic plaque angiogenesis by down-regulating vascular endothelial growth factor and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate oxidase subunit 4 expression, Y. Qiao, et al, Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine, March, 2014.