In order to fully understand how to protect the cardiovascular system from disease, we should first be aware of what can go wrong and the common risk factors associated with major concerns, such as atherosclerosis (plaque buildup). The following is intended to provide a more accurate picture of the hidden process responsible for making heart disease the “silent killer”. After all, did you know that your blood flow can be reduced by up to 90% before you feel any symptoms?
The build-up of plaque and narrowing of the arteries is known as atherosclerosis. According to Brenda Watson, CNC, atherosclerosis is not only preventable but reversible! She explains that it was once thought that plaque buildup associated with narrowed arteries was caused by the accumulation of cholesterol in the arteries. While it is true that cholesterol is a component of plaque and plays a role in the process, it is not necessarily the main trigger.
Brenda elaborates that cholesterol is not all bad and that we need it to build cell membranes, produce hormones and convert Vitamin D in the body. Did you know that blood cholesterol levels have little to do with dietary intake? She explains that cholesterol is recycled and reabsorbed from the small intestines in the body. When we take in more cholesterol from foods, a healthy liver responds by producing less to maintain the balance. On the other hand, when we do not eat enough of it, the liver will produce more to compensate. Having said that, we should still exercise the principle of moderation in our diet and choose healthy foods in proper portions to ensure optimal health.
Therefore, Brenda cautions that we shouldn’t worry as much about cholesterol in itself, but rather the state it is in. Let me explain. Cholesterol needs a carrier to travel through the bloodstream and gets around in the body with “lipoproteins” (LDL or HDL). Contrary to popular belief, cholesterol itself is not “good” or “bad”, it is the lipoprotein carrier and its condition that makes the difference. LDL for example, carries cholesterol from the liver to different areas of the body, such as the arteries (making it “bad”). HDL on the other hand, picks up cholesterol from different areas of the body and brings it back to the liver for removal (making it “good”). Dr. Michael Murray, ND, explains that “the ratios of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol and LDL to HDL are referred to as cardiac risk factor ratios because they reflect whether cholesterol is being deposited into tissues or broken down and excreted”. However, Brenda Watson also notes that it is important to consider the state in which LDL is found. For instance, the size of the LDL particles matter as the smaller and denser particles are more destructive. In addition, oxidation of LDL cholesterol particles makes them more harmful. Oxidation occurs due to free radicals, which are highly reactive molecules. Now hold that thought for now…more on this topic in Part 2 next week!
So What Causes Plaque Accumulation?
So if cholesterol isn’t necessarily the biggest problem, what is? According to Brenda, atherosclerosis is a gradual series of events that is triggered by dysfunction (damage or stress) to the inner arterial lining (endothelium). Endothelial dysfunction can be due to a range of factors including: poor diet, aging, alcohol, obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, free radical exposure, environmental toxins, inactivity, poor gut health, chronic inflammation, emotional stress, infection, etc. This “dysfunction” then triggers an overactive inflammatory process which attracts immune cells and oxidized LDL into the artery wall in an effort to repair the damage. This then further triggers the inflammatory response, leading to the buildup of fatty material, more cholesterol, immune cells, fibrin (blood clotting material), minerals (i.e. calcium) and free radicals, thus making up “plaque” found inside the artery. Inflammation plays a role at each stage of this process. Therefore, the key triggers to atherosclerosis are deterioration of the endolethial lining from a variety of risk factors and the resulting inflammatory reaction.
The Vicious Cycle
As plaque builds up over time, the artery thickens and loses flexibility, narrowing the opening. This stiffness or hardening of artery walls creates arterial resistance, which is a potential cause of hypertension (high blood pressure). In fact, Dr. Michael Murray, ND, states that “high blood pressure is most often due to atherosclerosis”. In turn, this increased pressure can then lead to more damage on lining, further triggering and worsening the process of atherosclerosis.
Note that other factors that can lead to elevated blood pressure include: arterial stiffness as a result of aging or reduced production of nitric oxide, increased blood flow from exercise or chronic stress and fluid retention or increased blood volume from high sodium/low potassium or potential kidney problems.
After breaking down the complex process of atherosclerosis and its main trigger, we can understand the importance of preventing deterioration in the arteries. In order to do this, we need to target the potential triggers or common risk factors. More on this in Part 2 next week!
-This article is sponsored by Good N Natural in Steinbach –