Atherosclerosis is a build up of plaque inside your arteries. Arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygenrich blood to your heart and other parts of your body. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances found in the blood. With an unhealthy lifestyle, increased age, other co-morbidities and oxidised circulating cholesterol, plaque sticks to artery walls and hardens, narrowing the arteries. This limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your organs and other parts of your body. Atherosclerosis can lead to the serious problem of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) which can often lead to death.
A) Normal artery free of plaque
B) Atherosclerotic artery highlighting plaque build up.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) which includes stroke, heart & blood vessel disease, is still the leading cause of death in New Zealand, accounting for 30% of deaths annually.
In fact every 90 minutes a New Zealander dies from heart disease. It is often perceived as a male problem; however CVD is the number one killer of women globally, killing more women than all cancers, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria combined! Nearly two-thirds of the deaths from heart attacks in women occur among those who have no history of chest pain. In 2011, 2600 women died of heart disease in New Zealand alone, that’s more than 7 women a day – or about 50 each week.
There are many risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease. Some risk factors such as family history, ethnicity, gender and age, cannot be changed, they are nonmodifiable. For example as we age, the risk of developing CVD increases. In the United States;
Other risk factors that can be treated or modified include smoking exposure, high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, obesity, physical inactivity, diabetes mellitus and poor nutrition/unhealthy food choices.
Having a risk factor doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop CVD in your lifetime, however it puts you more at risk than someone with no risk factors. In addition, the more risk factors you have the greater the likelihood of developing CVD. You can reduce your risk by making changes to your modifiable risk factors.
Some studies have shown that the traditional risk factors (as highlighted above) don’t fully explain the increased risk of cardiovascular disease, meaning that there are other factors involved. One of the factors contributing to accelerated atherosclerosis is autoimmunity. Altered immune system function is recognised as the primary contributor to both the initiation and progression of atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis once believed to be caused by passive lipid deposits into arterial walls, subsequently covered in smooth muscle and endothelial cells, is now known to be a dynamic accumulation of oxidised cholesterol over time and primarily driven by the immune system. Research has shown the immune system may attack heart tissue. For example a type of Chlamydia bacteria (and the immune system response to it) has been associated with arterial plaque formation in over 79% of patients with heart disease. Wow, so what does all that mean? It may imply that those with autoimmune conditions may be at a higher risk of developing atherosclerosis and associated CVD.
Reduce your risk by making changes to your modifiable risk factors. Quit tobacco use, that’s both smoking and tobacco chewing, as both are linked to increased CVD risk. Watch your diet, eat a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, go easy on the saturated fat, get plenty of exercise and decrease stress. Most of these will help to decrease your cholesterol & blood pressure, bring down the weight and may even reverse type 2 diabetes.
Our bodies immunity starts in the gut, poor gut health = poor immunity, which can lead to an array of autoimmune diseases. Factors that compromise the integrity of our gut health are:
These all compromise the gut wall structure breaking down the tight wall junctions leading to intestinal permeability often referred to as leaky gut syndrome. Gut integrity is integral for a strong immune system, get the gut right and you’re on track towards a healthy immune system.
Finding the cause and removing the offender(s) is the first stage of gut repair. Substances that may be beneficial in repairing intestinal permeability include colostrum, aloe vera and the amino acid glutamine.
Coenzyme Q10 is an antioxidant that is produced within the body. The heart has a high demand for CoQ10 and as we age unfortunately we produce less of it. CoQ10 inhibits the oxidation and propagation of lipids and protein oxidation, thus reducing the production of free radicals. That is, it helps to prevent oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which may provide benefit in cardiovascular diseases prevention and treatment. It regenerates other fat soluble vitamins, such as vitamin E, which is also a pro-heart vitamin. Foods rich in CoQ10 include offal, meat, nuts and seeds.
The omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are also important for cardiovascular health. Diets high in these help maintain healthy blood pressure, blood lipids, and heart rate; compared to diets low in these. EPA and DHA also help in maintaining healthy immune functions and inflammatory responses within the body. They can reduce the risk of stroke, follow-on heart attacks, and death in those who’ve had a previous heart attack. The richest food sources of omega 3 fatty acids include, fish, chia seeds and flax seeds (linseed).
Looking after your heart doesn’t just mean getting out for a little bit of exercise each day. It means looking after your diet, reducing your modifiable risk factors for CVD and ensuring your immune system is at its optimal by taking care of your gut health too.