To most people, clogged arteries mean increased risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke. Often, getting diagnosed with partially occluded arteries leads to a prescription for cholesterol-lowering medication or invasive procedures like an angioplasty or bypass surgery.
Before you find yourself being asked to choose one of these conventional medical approaches to addressing clogged arteries, I encourage you to be fully aware of the actual make-up of plaque that can occlude your arteries, the way in which such plaque develops, the different levels of risk that accompany varying degrees of blockage, and most importantly, what you can do to reduce your risk of experiencing health challenges that can be caused by occluded arteries.
Pathology 101 teaches us that accumulation of plaque, commonly called an atheroma, is a buildup in artery walls that is composed of the following:
Specialized white blood cells (macrophages)
Fibrous connective tissue
Damaged lipids (cholesterol and fatty acids)
Atheromatous plaques aren't a welcome addition to your body, but they're extremely common and just one of many natural degenerative developments that occur as you age. To completely avoid atherosclerosis as you get older is virtually impossible; development typically begins in childhood, and the presence of atheromata isn't uncommon even at the toddler stage.
Buildup of atheromatous plaques occurs between the innermost lining of your artery walls and the layer of smooth muscle that gives your arteries the ability to pulsate and propel blood through your circulatory system.
Atheromatous plaques begin with an accumulation of specialized white blood cells that have engulfed damaged low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Your body works to remove such accumulations, but if you're exposed to a continuous stream of them via unhealthy dietary choices, these early accumulations can begin to attract even more white blood cells. Over time, these plaques tend to accumulate calcium deposits on their outer layers; these calcium deposits serve to stiffen the accumulations of white blood cells and damaged lipids within.
Conventional medical thought is that arteries that are clogged by atheromatous plaques decrease blood flow to your tissues, and in the case of occluded arteries that are supplying your heart or brain, if blood circulation is compromised enough, you may experience a heart attack or a stroke.
We now know arteries that are 30 to 40 percent occluded may actually be more likely to contribute to a heart attack than arteries that are 90 to 95 percent clogged. As Dr. Dean Ornish explains, when there is a significant amount of plaque buildup in your arteries, these plaques are more likely to be stabilized by calcium deposits.
Another reason why more occlusion does not always increase your risk of experiencing a heart attack is that your body can develop alternate pathways for blood flow - called collateral vessels - when arteries become fully or almost fully clogged; this is a great example of the never-ending pursuit of your self-healing mechanisms to keep you alive.
An artery that is only 30 percent clogged won't typically have collateral vessels around it (it usually takes more occlusion and time for your body to create collateral vessels).
Also, arteries that are only about 30 percent clogged aren't likely to be stabilized by calcium deposits, which means that whenever you experience significant emotional stress, such arteries can easily constrict due to your body's natural flight/fight response, and constriction of atheromatous plaques can cause them to rupture - this is how plaque ruptures tend to occur.
When a plaque ruptures, it's possible for an artery that was only 30 to 40 percent clogged to become fully occluded within several seconds to a few minutes. This process is termed catastrophic progresion, and is the mechanism by which many heart attacks and strokes occur.
The good news is that studies by Dr. Dean Ornish and his colleagues indicate that making healthy dietary and lifestyle choices can dramatically decrease your risk of experiencing plaque ruptures, and often, even people who have frequent episodes of angina (chest pain) caused by clogged arteries can experience significant improvement within a few weeks.
To reduce risk of heart attack and stroke, one of the most important lifestyle choices to make is to learn how to effectively manage emotional stress because it's emotional stress that's most likely to cause rupture of vulnerable plaques in your arteries via sudden constriction that's regulated by your autonomic nervous system.
Numerous studies clearly indicate that mental and emotional stress - including chronic depression and anger - significantly increase your risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke. This is why being in an unhappy long term relationship is arguably just as dangerous to your health as smoking, eating poorly, and not being physically active.
On the dietary front, the most important action steps are:
Decrease intake of unhealthy fats, sugar-rich foods, and other foods that are rich in refined carbohydrates
Ensure regular intake of nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, and legumes
Part of ensuring optimal nourishment includes making sure that you're getting enough vitamin B12, vitamin B6, and folate, which are micronutrients that are vital to keeping your blood homocysteine level within a healthy range. Allowing your blood homocysteine level to get and stay elevated virtually guarantees that you will develop cardiovascular disease.
I hope that this post encourages you to continuously work at being emotionally balanced, optimally nourished, and committed to making healthy lifestyle choices every day. These ways of being make up the best approach to treating and preventing clogged arteries, and as soon as you get started, you'll begin to reduce your risk of experiencing cardiovascular disease and a number of other health challenges.
Dr. Ben Kim is a chiropractor and acupuncturist living and working in Barrie, Ontario, Canada. Visit his website at www.drbenkim.com