By: Cliff Stamp
What is Arteriosclerosis?
Arteriosclerosis is a common health condition in which the large blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the body grow stiff, thick and inflexible. The artery walls harden, so the condition earns the nickname “hardening of the arteries” (x). It’s a dangerous and potentially life-threatening disorder, but there are treatment options. Patients can control the condition with lifestyle and dietary changes. There are also supplements that may improve heart health and potentially reduce the risk of arteriosclerosis.
What is Atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis is a type of arteriosclerosis that develops when plaque forms on the interior of the artery walls. The plaque is sticky and made of fat and cholesterol that accumulates and attaches to the wall of the artery. The plaque then causes the artery to narrow, slowly decreasing blood flow to the body. If the plaque ruptures, the patient may suffer a heart attack or stroke. This condition can affect every artery in the body. It can begin early in life and progress slowly. The symptoms of atherosclerosis may be apparent or, alternatively, barely noticeable (x).
Symptoms of Arteriosclerosis
Usually arteriosclerosis does not show any symptoms. But it is important to have routine checkups because as the condition worsens, it can trigger a heart attack or stroke. Common symptoms include (x):
- Chest pain and angina
- Numbness in the arms and legs
- Kidney failure (x)
- Shortness of breath
- Slurred speech
- Brief vision loss
Causes of Arteriosclerosis
High Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is the amount of blood pressing against the blood vessels and if a patient has high blood pressure—hypertension—it means there is more pressure on the arteries than normal (x). Because it puts a strain on it, high blood pressure can damage the interior lining of the arteries. Cholesterol and fat deposits begin to accumulate in the artery and create plaque, eventually blocking off circulation. High cholesterol can cause both arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis (x).
Cholesterol is a fat-like chemical compound regulated by the liver. It’s necessary for good health. However, it’s easy to get too much cholesterol in the diet, which may cause complications. Cholesterol comes in two varieties: HDL, which is high-density lipoprotein and LDL, which is low-density lipoprotein. Usually people think of them as the “good cholesterol” and the “bad cholesterol,” respectively. HDL scavenges LDL from the bloodstream and takes it back to the liver and LDL transfers cholesterol to the rest of the body (x). LDL cholesterol sticks to the blood vessels and can cause inflammation and arterial tears. Then blood clots develop and if they are big enough, they can block the vessel and cause a heart attack or stroke (x).
Other Risk Factors
Complications of Arteriosclerosis
Arteriosclerosis reduces quality of life and at worst, it can kill. When the body’s organs and tissues do not get the essential oxygen they need, they can’t function properly and effectively. And if the body struggles just to stay alive, it can be extremely difficult to enjoy life. There are some complications that may develop from arteriosclerosis.
Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)
Arteriosclerosis causes the arteries to thicken and narrow. When the arteries that serve the heart get narrow and blood flow drops, severe chest pain (angina pectoris), heart failure or a heart attack can ensue (x). Heart disease is the number one killer of both women and men in the U.S. every year (x).
Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)
This is a particular type of atherosclerosis that affects the blood vessels that transport blood to the arms and legs. One common sign of peripheral artery disease is pain in the leg muscles when walking (claudication). It may also cause cramping in the hips or calf muscles after mild exertion, numbness or weakness in the extremities or a weak pulse in the feet. Patients may also experience persistently cold feet (x).
Carotid Artery Disease
The carotid arteries are on either side of the neck, splitting into internal and external arteries. The internal arteries supply blood and oxygen to the brain and the external arteries transport blood and oxygen to the face, scalp and neck. Carotid artery disease develops when they build up with plaque. Transient ischemic attacks (TIA), also commonly referred to as “mini strokes,” are the hallmark sign of carotid artery disease (x). The condition may cause a stroke if the arteries narrow and restrict oxygen flow or if blood clots in the arteries. Sometimes it does not cause symptoms until it is severe and a stroke may be the first sign of carotid artery disease (x).
An aneurysm is a bulge in an artery’s wall when the wall weakens. They are dangerous and potentially lethal. Aneurysms can break through the artery wall, causing massive internal bleeding. When an artery ruptures, there is little to no time to get medical help. Aneurysms tend to be silent. That is, they produce little to no symptoms. However, it is possible to correct them if they are discovered (x, x).
Chronic Kidney Disease
Routine Physical Examinations
Many patients discover that they have arteriosclerosis during routine physical exams that check blood pressure and body mass index (BMI). An area of a weak pulse, an uneven blood pressure between the limbs or a whooshing noise over an artery through a stethoscope may indicate a blockage (x).
Doppler ultrasound is a noninvasive way to get an accurate diagnosis. Ultrasound paints a picture of the speed of blood flowing through the arteries and can pick up obstructions in blood flow (x).
Blood tests will show elevated triglycerides and the amount of cholesterol in the blood. A blood test can also pick up cardiac proteins, which release when the cardiac muscle is injured (x).
An electrocardiogram records the heart’s electrical activity to determine if its speed is regular. It can help determine if the patient is at risk for coronary artery disease or signs of heart attack (x).
Treating arteriosclerosis may involve invasive surgical techniques. Three common methods include:
The surgeon places a tiny tube (catheter) into an artery in the leg or groin and threads it into damaged, diseased or blocked arteries. Once the catheter is in place, the surgeon inflates a small balloon at the tip of the catheter, which pushes the plaque flat against the wall of the artery, creating space for blood to flow (x).
After the balloon angioplasty, the surgeon uses a technique called stenting. To make sure the blood continues to flow correctly, a small mesh tube called a stent is placed in the artery. It holds the artery open, creating better circulation (x).
Cardiac Bypass Surgery
It is possible to bypass blocked arteries by using vessels in the patient’s leg to route blood around the clogged arteries (x).
When plaque narrows the carotid arteries, which carry fresh blood to the brain, the patient is at risk for a stroke. A carotid endarterectomy prevents a stroke if the patient shows signs of reduced blood flow. To clean out the plaque, the surgeon opens the carotid artery, removes the plaque and then closes the artery with a patch. It does not cure the condition, just aims to prevent complications and the arteries can clog again (x).
It’s crucial to identify the lifestyle risk factors for arteriosclerosis and eliminate them. The most common risk factor for clogged arteries is high cholesterol and high blood pressure. There’s no easy way to remove plaque buildup. It is possible with surgery, but the best course is prevention. There are a lot of ways to prevent arteriosclerosis by making various lifestyle changes.
If you smoke, stop. Smoking damages the artery walls and causes plaque to form inside of them. Studies show that smoking is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease, including arteriosclerosis because it triggers oxidative stress and vascular inflammation (x).
Cholesterol- and saturated fat-laden foods boost cholesterol, which causes plaque buildup in the blood. Eating less red meat, dairy and eggs, margarine and processed food and cutting down on sodium lowers the risk of high cholesterol. Try to implement antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods into your diet (x).
Get more fiber from food sources such as apples, pears, oatmeal, Brussels sprouts and kidney beans. A diet with soluble fiber may prevent too much cholesterol from absorbing into the bloodstream (x).
Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as tuna, salmon, mackerel and walnuts. Omega-3 fatty acids also help control high blood pressure, reduce triglycerides levels and slow down plaque development in the arteries (x). Omega-3 fatty acids are available as supplements as well.
Regular alcohol consumption may also have an effect on heart health. Research shows that binge drinking may increase the risk of weight gain and atherosclerosis because one of its risk factors is obesity. Reducing alcohol consumption or drinking only in moderation may help prevent arteriosclerosis (x).
Exercise lowers blood pressure. It helps control body weight and reduces the amount of fat in the blood. Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise four times a week helps protect the heart and arteries from arteriosclerosis. However, check with a doctor before starting a new exercise program (x).
Getting regular checkups to test for cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood allows you to be proactive and make changes that will stabilize heart health and reduce the risk of arteriosclerosis (x).
Supplements for Heart Health & Blood Circulation
There are many supplements that may be able to promote heart health. Even though they may help, supplements are not designed to treat medical conditions. Always check with a doctor before taking supplements and always follow doctors’ advice. Supplements to help with heart health include:
Researchers have studied artichoke as a potential treatment option to lower cholesterol and studies have found it useful (x). Take 700 mg (1/3 tsp) of artichoke extract daily or as directed by a physician.
A popular ingredient in dessert and wine, the hawthorn plant supports good heart health and may also improve exercise performance. Supplements come from its leaves and its berries. Take hawthorn berry extract in doses of 1,200 mg once or twice a day, or following a physician’s instructions. The recommended dosage for hawthorn leaf extract is 500 mg once or twice every day or as directed by a physician.
Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide)
Niacinamide, also known as Vitamin B3, lowers LDL cholesterol (x) and raises HDL cholesterol levels. It may be useful for lowering triglycerides as well (x). Take 100 to 500 mg doses of Vitamin B3 supplements daily with meals.
Red Yeast Rice Extract
The first documented use of red yeast rice dates back to 800 A.D. Though it doesn’t cure disease, it can boost overall health and contains antioxidants to protect the body from free radicals. Red yeast rice powder also reduces LDL cholesterol, as well as triglycerides (x). The recommended dosage for red yeast rice extract is 600 mg once or twice a day (x).
Ginger Root Extract
According to studies, ginger root may be able to lower LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and total cholesterol (x). As a dietary supplement, take 1,000 mg of ginger root extract powder once daily or follow a physician’s dosage instructions.
Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric that reduces cholesterol. According to studies, it may reduce cholesterol by about one-third in two months (x). The recommended dosage for turmeric extract powder is 1,000 mg daily unless a physician advises against it.
With both flavonoids and terpenoids, ginkgo biloba can fight free radicals, which cause damage to the body and potentially interfere with DNA, including heart problems. It may also improve blood circulation (x). Take 175 mg of ginkgo biloba leaf extract two or three times a day, unless a physician recommends a different dosage.
Used in breakfast cereals, desserts and ciders, we are used to ground cinnamon, which comes from the bark of different trees. It may help regulate blood sugar levels—which is good for diabetes—by reducing insulin resistance and prevent too much glucose from entering the bloodstream. It may also promote better circulation (x) and decrease blood pressure (x, x). As a dietary supplement, the recommended dosage for cinnamon bark extract is 675 to 1,350 mg three to five times a day, unless a physician advises otherwise.
The Bottom Line
Arteriosclerosis is a common disease with potentially life-threatening complications. It develops when plaque builds up on artery walls and narrows blood vessels. Plaque is a fat-like substance that forms from cholesterol and mineral deposits. When it builds up, the arteries harden and blood and oxygen cannot flow freely and effectively throughout the body. Arteriosclerosis can cause further complications, such as a heart attack or stroke.
The two main causes are high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Smoking, family history, weight and diet are other risk factors for arteriosclerosis. Treatment options include balloon angioplasty, stenting and cardiac bypass surgery. Another procedure called carotid endarterectomy can remove plaque from the arteries and reduce the risk of stroke.
Patients can reduce the risk of arteriosclerosis and its complications by eliminating tobacco and alcohol, eating a diet low in fat and cholesterol, exercising regularly and getting regular checkups to check blood pressure and cholesterol. Supplements may also help prevent the condition by promoting heart health. However, they are not intended to cure the disease and should not take the place of proper medical treatment. Always consult a doctor before taking supplements.