Atherosclerosis: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
Atherosclerosis occurs when fatty plaques attach to the lining of blood vessel walls causing them to become clogged and narrowed.
Over time, this leads to cardiovascular disease and can even cause heart attacks or stroke in some cases.
It is thought that many adults over the age of 40 have atherosclerosis to some degree and it is more common in men than women.
Effective atherosclerosis treatment involves a wide-ranging approach to lifestyle, diet and exercise.
What Is Atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis (also known as atherosclerotic vascular disease) is a progressive cardiovascular condition where the arteries become clogged with fatty substances called plaques or atheroma. This causes the arteries to narrow and restricts the flow of blood to the heart, brain or legs, which increases the risk of potentially life-threatening conditions such as heart attack or stroke. Atherosclerosis is slightly more common in men, although women, especially those over 60, are also at risk.
What Causes Atherosclerosis?
As fatty materials accumulate along artery walls they trigger inflammation. The body responds by sending white blood cells to the affected areas, which clump together to form a seal over the inflammation. Over time, these fatty clumps build up and begin to narrow the arteries. Several lifestyle factors can increase your risk of atherosclerosis, including:
- Smoking: Tobacco smoke damages the walls of the arteries, leading to the build-up of white blood cells and platelets, as the body tries to repair itself.
- Diabetes: An excess of glucose in the blood can also cause damage to the artery walls.
- Genetics: If a close relative has suffered from cardiovascular disease, stroke or heart attack, you have a higher risk of developing atherosclerosis.
- High blood pressure: The arteries are designed to carry blood at a certain pressure, so if the blood pressure is too high, it can cause damage to artery walls.
- Alcohol: Drinking an excessive amount of alcohol can damage the heart muscle, cause high blood pressure, and contribute to raised cholesterol levels.
- Ethnicity: People of African or African-Caribbean descent have a higher risk of diabetes and high blood pressure, and therefore have an increased risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.
- Obesity: When people are overweight or obese, they have an increased risk of developing atherosclerosis due to a combination of factors common in people who are overweight, including a lack of physical activity, an unhealthy high-fat diet, and high blood pressure.
Arterial plaques can take many years to build up and often present few symptoms. Many people are diagnosed with atherosclerosis only after they experience other heart-related complications, such as angina, heart attack or stroke. Symptoms which may be present include:
- Chest pains, otherwise known as angina, result from the narrowing of the coronary arteries, which restricts blood flow and the delivery of oxygen to the heart muscles. These pains are often described as a tightness or ‘squeezing’ sensation around the chest.
- Abnormal heartbeats, or arrhythmia, occur when the heart beats too slow or too fast.
- Headaches, feelings of dizziness and confusion, problems speaking or walking straight, blurred vision and loss of consciousness are all symptoms of a narrowing of the carotid arteries, which supply the brain and neck with blood. If the blood supply to the brain is stopped or reduced dramatically, parts of the brain are starved for blood and cell death can occur, this is what happens when you have a stroke.
- Numbness and pain in the arms or legs and poor wound healing can be a sign of narrowing of the peripheral arteries, which supply blood to the arms and legs.
- Kidney problems. Arterial plaque can form in the renal arteries which supply the kidneys with blood, and when these arteries become narrowed it increases the risk of chronic kidney disease.
The complications of atherosclerosis can be severe and life-threatening. Because there are so few symptoms, many people do not realise they have a problem until they suffer a heart attack or stroke.
When arterial plaques rupture, they can block the flow of blood through the artery, which triggers a heart attack and damages cells in the heart. If the blockage occurs in the carotid arteries, blood flow to the brain is restricted, resulting in stroke or brain damage.
Smaller clumps of plaque may also detach and flow around the circulatory system until they reach smaller arteries and veins, where they cause a thromboembolism, starving the tissues of oxygenated blood.
More often than not, atherosclerosis doesn’t produce any symptoms so it is better to make healthy changes in your life now to reduce your risk. While there is no cure for atherosclerosis, proper treatment can slow or stop the progression of the disease, and in some cases may even reverse damage.
If you have already been diagnosed with atherosclerosis, your doctor may advise an atherosclerosis treatment plan involving a combination of prescribed medications and lifestyle changes.
- Limit your alcohol intake: Drinking to excess raises blood pressure and triglyceride levels (a type of fat found in the blood). Alcohol is also high in sugar and often contributes to weight gain. If you do drink, try to consume no more than 1-2 small servings of alcohol per day, e.g. half a pint of beer, a single measure of spirits, or a small glass of wine.
- Exercise: Regular physical activity is good for the heart because it helps to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and aids weight loss. Exercising for just 20 to 30 minutes each day is sufficient to improve heart health, and it doesn’t need to be strenuous. Gentle exercises such as walking, swimming or yoga are good options.
- Quit smoking: Aside from being bad for your general health, the chemicals in cigarette smoke can cause blood vessels to become hard and narrow, which damage the sensitive artery walls. Smoking also decreases the blood’s ability to carry oxygen around the body, which increases the risk of blood clots forming.
- Manage stress: Over time, high-stress levels increase blood pressure. Try relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or gentle exercises such as yoga or tai chi to help you relax.
The diet also plays an important role in the maintenance of a healthy heart; a poor diet significantly increases the risk of atherosclerosis, while a healthy, balanced diet can help to prevent it. Follow these simple tips to keep your heart healthy:
- Aim to eat at least 5 portions of different fruits and vegetables each day: Fruits and vegetables play a protective role in the health of the whole body. 5 portions are not the max! 7 to 9 is even better.
- Keep high-fat foods like meat and dairy products to a minimum: Opt for lean meats such as skinless chicken and fish. over processed, fatty meats like bacon and sausage. Saturated fats can increase the levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood. Some low-fat dairy choices include cottage cheese, skimmed milk, and natural yoghurt.
- Avoid consuming too much salt: The body needs a little salt to function normally, but hidden salts in foods mean that many of us consume more than we intend to. The current guidelines recommend consuming no more than 6g of salt per day – around one teaspoon.
- A diet high in fibre: Fibre-rich foods reduce the absorption of cholesterol in the digestive tract. Add more fibre into your diet by eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains such as oats, beans and legumes.
- Use the Mediterranean diet as a guide: The Mediterranean Diet emphasises eating primarily plant-based foods, replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil, limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month, and eating fish and poultry at least twice a week. Numerous studies have shown this diet to be effective at reducing the risk of heart disease.
- Olive oil: Olive oil is mainly comprised of monounsaturated fat — a type of fat that can help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels when used in place of saturated or trans fats. This oil features heavily in the Mediterranean Diet – bread is dipped in olive oil instead of eaten with butter, and it is also used extensively in cooking.
- Nuts and seeds: Rich in healthy fats that can help to increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels within the body. Due to their high-calorie content you only need a handful of plain nuts a day, and try to avoid nuts that are salted or honey roasted.
Supplements for Atherosclerosis
Specialised heart health supplements can offer added protection for the heart when taken alongside a healthy diet and lifestyle and are becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to prescription medications.
Omega 3 Fish Oils
Omega 3 fatty acids offer anti-inflammatory benefits that help to prevent or slow the progression of fatty plaques and atherosclerosis. They may also help to reduce triglyceride levels and the risk of blood clots. Two weekly portions of fresh, oily fish should provide all your omega 3 needs, while fish oil or nuts and seeds are all convenient alternatives.
Plant Sterols, also known as phytosterols, are natural compounds found plants that closely resemble our own cholesterol. When consumed, they mimic cholesterol in the blood and reduce its absorption. As a result, they can lower total cholesterol levels by as much as 11% over a 4 week period, and reduce the risk of heart disease. Plant sterols are often safe to take in combination with prescribed statin drugs but always check with your GP first.
Garlic contains powerful sulphur compounds that help to improve circulation and lower blood pressure. The active ingredient in garlic is allicin, which has been shown to relax the blood vessels, keep the blood flowing easily, and reduce the build-up of arterial plaque. When using fresh garlic, always crush the cloves before use to allow the beneficial enzymatic reaction to start taking place before cooking. Or, if you don’t like the taste or smell, garlic supplements are available.
CoQ10 helps to release the energy within cells which they need to function and is highly concentrated in organs that use a great deal of energy, such as the heart. COQ10 supplements can help to lower blood pressure and are popularly taken alongside statin drugs because they are known to lower natural CoQ10 levels in the body.
Please note, if you are already taking a prescription atherosclerosis treatment please consult your GP prior to supplementation.