Atherosclerosis occurs when fatty material, such as cholesterol, is deposited along the walls of arteries, forming plaques and atheromas. This causes obstruction of the normal blood flow, which can be partial or complete. Under such circumstances, not enough oxygen-carrying blood gets to the parts of the body that need it. If the brain is affected, a mini-stroke or full-blown stroke may occur. When the heart is affected, it may result in angina chest pain or a heart attack. Narrowing of the blood vessels can affect any part of the body, including the eyes, kidneys and legs, when it's called peripheral vascular disease (PVD). The loss of elasticity of the blood vessels can also contribute to the development of high blood pressure (hypertension) and impotence (erectile dysfunction).
Another major concern is that pieces of the plaque may break off. When this occurs, the fragment is carried along in the blood until it reaches a part of the artery that's too narrow for it to pass through.
Atherosclerosis may be caused due to risk factors that can't be eliminated such as increasing age and family history. The risk factors that can be managed include smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure. Other contributors to heart disease and stroke include inactivity and being overweight.
Once a blockage has developed, it's generally there to stay. With medication and lifestyle changes, though, plaques may slow or stop growing. They may even shrink slightly with aggressive treatment.
Medication – Taking drugs for high cholesterol and high blood pressure will slow and perhaps even halt the progression of atherosclerosis, as well as lower your risk of heart attacks and stroke.
Lifestyle changes – Reducing the lifestyle risk factors that lead to atherosclerosis will slow or stop the process. That means a healthy diet, exercise, and no smoking. These lifestyle changes won't remove blockages, but they’re proven to lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Atherosclerosis can be prevented by having a heart-healthy diet. This includes foods that help obtain or maintain healthy levels of cholesterol and fatty molecules called lipids. The goal is to:
Reducing overall cholesterol levels and low-density lipoproteins (LDL), which are harmful to the heart
Increasing high-density lipoproteins (HDL), which are beneficial for the heart
Reducing other harmful lipids (fatty molecules), such as triglycerides and lipoprotein(a)
The diet should also help keep blood pressure and weight under control
Eat a diet rich in a variety of vegetables and fruits. Vegetables and fruits that are deeply coloured such as spinach, carrots, peaches, and berries are especially recommended as they have the highest micronutrient content.
Choose whole-grain, high-fibre foods. These include fruits, vegetables, and legumes (beans). Good whole grain choices include whole wheat, oats/oatmeal, rye, barley, brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur, millet, and quinoa. Consuming whole grains on a regular basis may lower the risk for heart disease and heart failure, improve factors involved with diabetes, and lower the risk for type 2 diabetes. .) High consumption of nuts (such as almonds, macadamia, and walnuts) may be highly heart protective, independent of their fibre content.
Eat fish, especially oily fish, at least twice a week (about 8 ounces/week). Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines are rich in the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Consumption of these fatty acids is linked to reduced risk of sudden death and death from coronary artery disease.
Omega-6 fatty acids are also essential and are available in several different types: linoleic acid, gamma-linolenic acid and arachidonic acid. The body converts linoleic acid to gamma-linolenic acid to arachidonic acid. Foods high in linoleic acid include vegetable oil (sunflower, soybean, corn, sesame, cottonseed, grapeseed and walnut), Nuts (walnuts, Brazil, almonds and cashews), and seeds (flax, hemp, sunflower, sesame, pine nuts, and pumpkin). Foods high in gamma-linolenic acid include evening primrose oil, borage oil and black currant seed oil.
Soluble fibre found in dried beans, oat bran, barley, apples, citrus fruits, and potatoes may help achieve healthy cholesterol levels and possibly reduce blood pressure as well. Soluble fibre supplements, such as those that contain psyllium or glucomannan, may also be beneficial. Psyllium is taken from the husk of a seed grown in India and is very effective for lowering total and LDL cholesterol. It is found in laxatives (Metamucil), breakfast cereals, and other products. People who increase intake of soluble fibre should also drink more water to avoid constipation.
Soy is an excellent food. It is rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and provides all essential proteins. Soy proteins have more vitamins and minerals than meat or dairy proteins. They also contain polyunsaturated fats, which are better than the saturated fat found in meat. The best sources of soy protein are soy products such as tofu, soy milk and soybean.
A potassium-rich diet can provide a small reduction in blood pressure. Potassium-rich foods include bananas, oranges, pears, prunes, cantaloupes, tomatoes, dried peas and beans, nuts, potatoes, and avocados.
Vitamins E and C act as antioxidants that act as scavengers of particles known as oxygen-free radicals. High intake of foods rich in these vitamins (as well as other food chemicals) have been associated with many health benefits, including prevention of heart problems. Vitamin E in preventing blood clots and preventing build-up of plaque on blood vessel walls. Good food sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits and that of vitamin E are wheat germ eggs, nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts), Sunflower seeds dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and sweet potatoes.