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Other Names:
Arteriosclerosis, Hardening of the arteries, Plaque buildup, arteries Plaque buildup
Atherosclerosis

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Remember the last time you had a juicy Hamburger with French fries? Some of that food is probably lingering in your body, in form of saturated fats and trans fats built up in your arteries.

What is atherosclerosis?

The name atherosclerosis comes from the Greek words athero; glue or paste and sclerosis; hardness. In today’s modern society the term is used when fatty substances, cholesterol (white crystal like substance which is made in the liver and needed for cell membranes and making steroids), cell waste products, calcium (mineral) and fibrin (a clotting material in the blood) build up inside the inner lining of an artery. The buildup of this material on the arteries is called plaque.

Arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Blood usually flows smoothly in arteries but the aging of blood vessels and exerting too much pressure can restrict blood flow in the arteries and make the inside arteries thick and hard. This hardening and narrowing of the arteries is called arteriosclerosis (ahr-tir-e-o-skleh-ro-sis). Atherosclerosis (ath-er-o-skleh-ro-sis) is the most common form of arteriosclerosis.

There are two types of plaque:

  • Hard and stable Plaque

  • Soft and unstable Plaque

The hard plaque will cause the wall of the artery to thicken and harden. The soft plaque has a higher chance of breaking off and entering into the blood stream. This can cause a blood clot and which can partially or totally block the artery. This will lead to a blood clot which in turn causes the organ/area that is supplied by that artery to be starved of blood and oxygen. The result may be severe damage or even cell death.

Plaque can sometimes completely block the flow of blood through the artery. This can result in hemorrhaging into the plaque (bleeding) and formation of a thrombus (blood clot) found on the plaques surface. If one of these happens and the artery becomes blocked this can cause a heart attack or stroke. If arteries in your neck or brain are affected, it results in cerebro-vascular disease such as stroke and transient ischemic attack (TIA). If the arteries in your heart are affected, it would result in coronary artery disease such as angina, heart attack and even sudden death. If the arteries in your limbs are affected, the result may be peripheral arterial disease such as skin ulcers.

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Symptoms of Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis develops slowly and gradually from childhood, so you will not usually notice any symptoms of atherosclerosis. However with Atherosclerosis, you will begin to experience the symptoms during exertion at first because your arteries can’t carry enough oxygen and nutrition to your organs and muscles. Atherosclerosis usually does not cause symptoms until the blood clot severely narrows an artery or totally blocks an artery.

Atherosclerosis symptoms depend on which arteries are severely narrowed or totally blocked by clots.

  • If the arteries that are linked to your heart (coronary arteries) are affected, you will have symptoms of coronary artery disease (CAD), such as chest pain and tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing and shortness of breath.

  • If the arteries that are linked to your brain are affected, you will have symptoms of a stroke or a TIA ("mini stroke"). You will experience a sudden localized paralysis and numbness in a limb.

  • If the arteries that are linked to your legs, pelvis or arms are affected, you will display symptoms of peripheral arterial disease (PAD) such as feeling of dullness, pain in the areas of your thigh, calf muscle or leg, and sometimes pain in your buttocks during exertion.

  • If the arteries that are linked to your kidneys are affected, you will have symptoms of reno-vascular hypertension.

  • In rare case, erectile dysfunction in men can be caused by the hardening and thickening of the arteries.

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • General weakness and unusual fatigue

  • Dizziness

  • Nausea

  • Increased perspiration

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Causes and risk factors

Researchers don’t know the exact cause of atherosclerosis, but they believe that damage or injury to surface on endothelium, which is innermost layer of the arteries, can lead to atherosclerosis. The damage to surface of the endothelium can be due to viruses, high blood pressure, allergic reactions, high blood cholesterol, carbon monoxide from stress, certain disease such as diabetes or irritants such as nicotine from smoking and drugs.

When arteries are damaged, many substances such as cholesterol, white blood cells, platelets, calcium and other substances clump together as if they were going to repair the damage. Then the substances accumulate at the damaged site and form a plaque and harden thus narrowing the arteries. This may start in childhood and develop faster as you get older.

The reasons why atherosclerosis develops are not well established, however, people who have a high level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is the bad cholesterol, have increased risks for developing Atherosclerosis. LDL is carried from liver to other tissues and LDL can be oxidized by reacting with free radicals (unstable chemical compounds).

Macrophage, which functions in the protection of the body against infection, can take in oxidized LDL and they accumulate at artery’s walls, contributing to build up of plaque. However, many people with atherosclerosis don’t have high cholesterol levels.

When plaque blocks the blood’s flow, your organs and tissues starve for blood, oxygen and nutrients. In order to maintain adequate level of bloods, your body may compensate by raising the level of blood pressure. The increase in blood pressure can damage your arteries even more and cause inflammation around the plaque. At last, the deposits rupture in the arteries and can lead to blood clots, which again translate into more serious medical conditions such as heart attacks.

Risk factors of atherosclerosis may include:

  • Age: In men the risk increases after age of 45 and in women risk increases after the age of 55.

  • Heredity: if your family has a history linked with atherosclerosis, you will have a increased risk of Atherosclerosis. In particular, if your father or brother were diagnosed with heart disease before the age of 55, or if your mother or sister were diagnosed with heart disease before the age of 65.

  • Smoking: this is one of the surest ways of getting heart disease and Atherosclerosis.

  • Gender: Pre-menopausal women are more likely to have Atherosclerosis than men of the same age.

  • High Blood Pressure

  • High Blood Cholesterol

  • Diabetes

  • Obesity

  • Ability to deal with stress

  • Chronic kidney disease

  • Poor Life style and insufficient physical activity is linked with atherosclerosis

  • High homo-cysteine level in the blood (an amino acid).

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Treatment

Treatment of atherosclerosis usually involves the reduction of risks associated with the atherosclerosis, management of the symptoms of atherosclerosis and prevention of the complications of atherosclerosis. Regardless of what medication or surgical procedure you receive, important lifestyle changes must be made. Your doctor decides which treatments are appropriate for you based on your risk factors, your symptoms, and some tests such as physical exam. Treatment may include:

  • Life-style changes

  • Medications

  • Surgical treatment
  • Alternative Therapies

Life-style changes

In order to manage and treat atherosclerosis, patients are urged to make lasting life-style changes:

  • Do moderate exercise as directed by your physician. Exercise improves your circulation.

  • Improve your daily diet, after consulting with your nutritionist or doctor to include high levels of antioxidants which can neutralize free radicals (read more on this subject under Alternative Therapies).

  • DASH diet is designed to prevent high blood pressure and involves taking higher quantities of vegetables and fruit and low-fat dairy products, and limiting the intake of cholesterol, saturated fats, total fats and salt.

  • Don’t smoke: smoking is a sure way of constriction of arteries and causes damage to the cardiovascular system.

  • Limit alcohol intake: moderate consumption of red wine is thought to prevent atherosclerosis but drinking excess alcohol can lead to heart disease.

  • If you are overweight, lose weight! Obesity leads to high blood pressure.

  • Learn how to relieve and reduce stress and how to cope with essential stress. Have fun with your friends. Get involved in community life and do more those things that make you happy and keep you healthy. Learn meditation.

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Medications

If you have symptoms of coronary artery disease, the following medications may be prescribed to control symptoms and, in some cases, slow its progression:

  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors lower the blood pressure and reduce the work pressure on the heart, thereby decreasing the risks of heart attacks.

  • Aspirin or other anti-platelet or Anti-coagulants medications to prevent the formation of blood clots in the arteries. These drugs increase the formation time for a blood clot and stops existing blood clots from growing larger, thus reducing the risks that pieces of a blood clot will break off and lead to a stroke or myocardial infarction.

  • Beta-blockers reduce the blood pressure and slow down the rate of heart beats so that the heart has less work to do.

  • Statins lower the LDL blood cholesterol levels and they are said to reduce the risk of a future heart attack. Some studies have cast doubt on the effectiveness of reducing slightly elevated cholestrol levels by use of Statins to reduce the risks of heart attacks.

  • Nitroglycerin and long-acting Nitrates can reduce chest pain and other symptoms associated with angina. However severe headaches may follow after use but these headaches tend to be temporary.
  • Calcium channel blockers, like Beta-blockers reduce the blood pressure and slow down the rate of heart beats so that the heart has less work to do. They also help dilate the coronary arteries thereby reducing the risks of heart attacks and angina.
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Surgical treatment

The goals of surgery for coronary artery disease (CAD) is to get the blood flow to the heart muscle returned to a more normal state, and allow the patient to resume a more normal lifestyle. Surgery may help some patients live longer by removing the grave dangers associated with Atherosclerosis.

Patients with Atherosclerosis, who display severe symptoms, may need to take one of the following procedures or surgeries:
Vascular surgery uses a synthetic fabric tube or a graft from another part of your body that has a healthy blood vessel to bypass the narrowed or blocked artery so that the blood can flow normally. Coronary Artery Bypass Surgeries may be recommended if atherosclerosis affects the arteries linked to the heart. The Coronary Artery Bypass Surgery usually involves open-heart procedure and has greater risks associated with it.

  • A trans-myocardial Laser Revascularization surgery (TMR) utilizes the modern laser beam equipment to improve blood flow to heart muscle. TMR is used in patients who are not suitable candidates for angioplasty or other types of surgery.

  • Patients, who need to improve the blood’s flow in the neck arteries, may need to have a carotid artery surgery to remove the deposits of plaques and improve the blood’s flow to the brain.

  • Angioplasty is used to open and widen narrowed arteries caused by plaque or clots. This procedure improves blood flow to the heart and may prevent a heart attack. Your physician inserts a catheter (a long, thin tube) with a balloon or other device into your artery and inflates the balloon at the narrowed or blocked artery. After this surgery, a stent (mesh tube) may be placed in the artery to help keep the artery open.

  • Embolectomy is a surgery that removes a blood clot and other obstructions in the arteries.

  • Endarterectomy surgically unblocks a severely clogged artery in the neck and significantly reduces the patient’s risks of suffering a stroke.

  • Thrombolytic therapy uses a drug to dissolve an abnormal blood clot which constricts the blood flow. Your doctor may inject it into the artery and the drug will break up the blood clot.

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Alternative Therapies

Many of the solutions put forward by the Western medicine carry significant risks and side effects. As the development of atherosclerosis is closely linked with lifestyle and diet, Alternatives therapies almost always use lifestyle changes and modifications to the diet as part of a comprehensive treatment plan to manage and reverse atherosclerosis.

Natural remedies which may help

 

PEAK ATP™— has shown in research to elevate red blood cell and plasma ATP levels, producing effects similar to those achieved by intravenous ATP administration. PEAK ATP™ has shown in studies that it can be readily absorbed, broken down into adenosine and organic phosphate and incorporated in the liver and red blood cells to raise ATP pools. This boosts circulating ATP levels for at least six hours. Adenosine, a breakdown product of ATP, may act as an endogenous protector of the heart. Adenosine is released from the heart primarily when the heart’s oxygen supply is limited as a result of increased oxygen consumption during exercise, restricted blood flow due to atherosclerosis, or ischemic events such as heart attack.

 

L-arginine. L-arginine is a basic amino acid found in many proteins and is essential to growth and maintenance in all vertebrates. There is evidence that L-arginine plays a major role in maintaining blood vessel dilation and reducing blood pressure, a major risk factor for stroke. L-arginine helps lower blood pressure by serving as a precursor to nitric oxide, which helps keep blood vessels dilated and blood flowing easily.

 

Acetyl-L-carnitine. Acetyl-L-carnitine is a derivative of carnitine. It is involved in the transport of fatty acid across the cell membrane, and converts to energy in the mitochondria of the cell. It also provides the acetyl component for the synthesis of acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter. One study has shown evidence that among stroke patients; acetyl-L-carnitine has a beneficial effect on abstract and concrete thinking and memory. The study concluded that acetyl-L-carnitine possesses antioxidant activity that offers protection against lipid peroxidation. Two other studies reported that large doses of intravenous acetyl-L-carnitine significantly improved cerebral blood flow in patients with chronic cerebrovascular disease who had experienced ischemic stroke.

 

Alpha Lipoic Acid. This powerful and naturally occurring antioxidant serves as a coenzyme in energy metabolism of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. It can regenerate thioredoxin, Vitamin C, and glutathione, which in turn can recycle Vitamin E. Alpha Lipoic Acid also helps manage proper serum glucose levels in diabetic patients. In animal studies, it has been shown to reduce endothelial dysfunction. Human studies have found that Alpha Lipoic Acid improves endothelial function amongst people with metabolic syndrome. Alpha Lipoic Acid works best in combination with other antioxidants including Vitamin E, Co-Enzyme Q10, Carnitine, and Selenomethionine.

 

Garlic. Aged garlic extract has been studied for its ability to reduce inflammation and the damaging effects of cholesterol in the endothelium. In one study of 15 men with coronary artery disease who were also being treated with statin drugs and low-dose aspirin, two weeks of supplementation with aged garlic extract significantly improved blood flow by improving endothelial function. Another study examined garlic’s ability to improve exercise capacity in patients with proven coronary artery disease. This study of 30 patients found that garlic oil significantly lowered heart rate during a stress test on a treadmill and otherwise eased the heart’s workload during the exercise. Finally, high-dose garlic was studied in 152 people with atherosclerotic plaque. Over 48 months, the study participants experienced significantly less increase in plaque deposits than a control group, and an actual regression of plaque was seen in some participants, leading researchers to conclude that garlic had a “not only preventative but possibly also a curative role in arteriosclerosis therapy”.

 

Ginkgo biloba. Approximately one-third of Ginkgo biloba extract is made up of the flavone glycoside known as quercetin. Quercetin has been shown to have antioxidant properties and inhibits LDL oxidation in experimental studies. Daily dosing with 120 mg Ginkgo biloba has been documented to reduce markers of lipid peroxidation in humans. Higher doses have may be beneficial in reducing ischemia in patients with atherosclerosis. Some scientists caution against using doses of ginkgo higher than 120 mg daily. This caution is based on the slight possibility that higher doses of ginkgo could induce too strong an antiplatelet effect, which could result in an internal blood vessel bleeding.

 

Quercetin. The so-called French paradox is the phenomenon of low rates of heart disease in a country known for its high intake of fatty foods. Recent research suggests that some of the reasons French people are protected from heart disease is a high intake of quercetin, a potent antioxidant and polyphenol found in red wine, onions and green tea. Numerous studies have examined quercetin and found it to be both a powerful antioxidant and a stimulator of nitric oxide, which inhibits endothelial proliferation, a hallmark of atherosclerosis.

Note:
Excessive selenium intake, beginning at about 900 mcg daily, can cause selenium toxicity.
Vitamin A may increase the anticoagulant effects of warfarin.

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Chinese herbal therapy

Consult a practitioner of Chinese medicine if you wish to take Chinese herbal therapy. Many combinations of Chinese herbs are said to be effective for treatment of arteriosclerosis, including platycodon (Platycodon grandiflorum), bupleurum (Bupleurum chinense), and siler (Ledebouriella divaricata).

Herbal therapy

Some Herbal Therapists believe that the best herb for treating atherosclerosis is Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) which strengthens your arteries. You can brew and drink some parts of hawthorn such as flowers and leaves as tea. Consult a practitioner of herbal therapy to find the best way to treat atherosclerosis for you.

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Atherosclerosis