Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, is the leading
cause of death in men over age 35 and all people over 45.
Most heart attacks and strokes are due to atherosclerosis.
Although the origin of this condition is not completely understood,
we know that it is accelerated by factors such as high blood
pressure or hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking,
and physical inactivity.
Current theories suggest that atherosclerosis begins with
injury to the lining of arteries. High blood pressure physically
stresses this lining, while circulating substances such as
low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, homocysteine, free
radicals, and nicotine chemically damage it. While blood cells
then attach to the damaged wall and take up residence. Then,
for reasons that are not entirely clear, they begin to accumulate
cholesterol and other fats. Platelets also latch on, releasing
substances that cause the formation of fibrous tissue. The
overall effect is a thickening of the artery wall called a
Over time, the thickening increases, narrowing the bore of
the artery. When blockage reaches 75 to 90%, the person begins
to notice angina symptoms, specifically heart pain. In the
lower legs, blockage of the blood flow leads to leg pain during
exercise, a condition called intermittent claudication.
Blood clots can develope on the irregular surfaces of the
artery and may become detached and block downstream blood
flow. Fragments of plaque can also detach. Heart attacks are
generally caused by such blood clots, whereas strokes are
more often caused by plaque fragments or gradual obstruction.
Furthermore, atherosclerotic blood vessels are weak and can
With a disease as serious and progressive as atherosclerosis,
the best treatment is prevention. Conventional medical
approaches focus on lifestyle changes, such as increasing
aerobic exercise, reducing the consumption of saturated fats,
and quitting smoking. The regular use of aspirin also appears
to be quite helpful by preventing platelet attachment and
blood clot formation. If necessary, drugs may be used to lower
cholesterol levels or blood pressure.
Recently, conventional medicine has also begun to suggest
keeping levels of homocysteine low by adding supplemental
folic acid and vitamin B6 to the diet. Consult with your physician
for late-breaking information regarding the ideal dose of
Principal natural treatments
Vitamine B6, folic acid, vitamin E, anioxidants, vitamin C, beta-carotene,
This fact cannot be emphasized enough: The most important way to prevent
atherosclerosis involves lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, increasing
exercise, and adopting a diet high in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables
and low in animal products. Olive oil and canola oil are probably among
the most healthful of vegetable oils. Heating oils to high temperatures
(as in fried foods) can oxidize them and make them less healthful.
It has been suggested that a high level of fish in the diet protects
against atherosclerosis. However, doubt has been cast on this idea. Strangely,
like beta-carotene, fish appears to be connected with a higher incidence
of heart disease in smokers.
The moderate use of alcohol, and specially red wine, appears to help
prevent atherosclerosis, although this is controversial as well. Coffee
may slightly increase cardiovascular risk, although some studies have shown
no effect when other factors, such as smoking and diets high in animal
fats (often associated with coffee use), are taken into account. It has
been suggested that coffee may raise homocysteine levels. Coffee probably
does not have a significant effect on cholesterol levels, although this
is debatable as well.
Other Natural Treatments
Omega-3 fatty acid, aortic glycosaminoglycans.
Many herbs appear to decrease platelet stickiness, including bilberry,
ginger, ginkgo, feverfew, and hawthorn. Whether this translates into an
actual benefit for preventing atherosclerosis remains unknown.
Other treatments sometimes mentioned for atherosclerosis include chondroitin,
astragalus, TMG, lutein, GLA, and copper, although there is little evidence
as yet that they are helpful.
Putting It All Together
Little doubt exists that regular exercise and a diet high in fish and
vegetables and low in animal fats can help prevent atherosclerosis. Unheated
olive oil and canola oil are probably among the most healthful sources
of dietary fat.
Supplemental vitamin E at a dosage around 400 IU daily probably also
helps prevent atherosclerosis, and adding vitamin B6 (10 to 20 mg daily)
and folic acid (400 to 800 mcg daily) are probably also helpful becase
of their effects on homocysteine levels. Garlic, too, appears to be beneficial.
The evidence for other herbs and supplements is promising but incomplete