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What is Atherosclerosis?
Hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, happens when plaque sticks to artery walls. The narrowed passage interferes with blood flow. The plaque sometimes breaks free and forms clots that further interfere with blood flow, including the blood that reaches organs. Atherosclerosis is a cause of cardiovascular disease—the primary reason for death in individuals over 45 years old. Blood carries vital materials, including oxygen, to all parts of the body. Once obstructed, the limited blood flow and clots result in heart attacks, strokes or peripheral artery disease.
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Causes, Risk Factors and Symptoms
While the exact causes of atherosclerosis remain unknown, contributing factors progress the disease. High LDL cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, inflammation and high blood pressure increase the damage to the arteries. Risk factors, such as family members with heart disease, being overweight, sedentary lifestyle and a diet high in trans fatty acids and saturated fats, increase the likelihood of developing atherosclerosis. Because some of the risk factors relate to food choices, it is possible to reverse atherosclerosis by diet. Atherosclerosis symptoms include the following:
- chest pain
- pain in the upper body and arms
- shortness of breath
- vision loss in one eye
- hair loss
- thickened nails
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Prevention and Treatment
The best tools to prevent heart disease include lifestyle choices and a healthy diet, according to the American Heart Association. Once you have atherosclerosis, a healthy diet makes up part of the treatment plan. Some people can reverse atherosclerosis by diet, but others may need medication or surgery to regain healthy arteries. All sufferers of hardened arteries can benefit from following recommended dietary guidelines and incorporating exercise into their daily lives.
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The main points of any atherosclerosis reversing diet are to reduce the intake of unhealthy fats and cholesterol, while increasing the amount of healthy fats, fiber and nutrient-dense foods.
- The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings per week of oily fish, such as salmon and herring. These fish contain omega 3 fatty acids, which have proven effective in reducing heart attack risk.
- The diet should contain less than 300 mg of cholesterol and 1500 mg of sodium daily.
- Fiber reduces the risk of coronary heart disease. Grains contain fiber. The recommended serving is 6-8 per day with half being whole grains, such as oats.
- Vegetables and fruits have high levels of vitamins and minerals, while also containing fiber and being low in calories. Eat 3-5 servings of vegetables and 4-5 servings of fruits every day.
- No more than 3 servings of fat-free or low fat dairy should be consumed. Limit meat eating to one 3-6 ounce serving of lean meat or poultry per day.
- Healthy oils, such as olive and canola, help reduce the risk of heart disease. Eat about 2-3 tbsp per day.
- Nuts, seeds and legumes can be eaten 3-5 servings per week.
- Eat no more than 5 servings of sweets per week, but the less consumed, the better.
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American Heart Association
University of Maryland Medical Center: Atherosclerosis
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: Treatments for Atherosclerosis