You’ve heard the old saying, “Forewarned is forearmed”?
That’s ever so true when it comes to your heart–
and the early warning signs that could
spell big trouble ahead.
If you’re going to have car problems, it’s better to be warned. That’s the idea behind the little yellow “check engine” light. It tells you to get to the mechanic’s shop sooner than later—preferably before you’re left stranded on a lonely highway at midnight.
Your body often works the same way. If you need longer arms to read the paper lately, there may be a pair of reading glasses in your future. If you can’t grasp things as firmly as you once did, arthritis might be in the offing. And if you become breathless in cold weather or after climbing a flight of stairs, asthma could be brewing.
In the same fashion, circulation problems in your legs and elsewhere may signal the presence of systemic atherosclerosis (also known as polyvascular disease), in which plaque deposits in arterial walls constrict blood flow. “Plaque not only builds up in the heart arteries, but also across the entire 75,000 miles of blood vessels that we each have,” explains A.J. Adams, ND of the International Institute of Holistic Healing in Dallas, Texas. “Since circulation flows throughout the body, this condition can occur in any area of the body, with the most impact on the heart, brain, kidneys and their blood vessels.” That’s why dealing with atherosclerosis wherever it occurs not only eases existing circulation problems and improves your overall health but can also help protect your heart.
The scary part is that you may not even know you’ve got atherosclerosis until a heart attack or stroke proves it. “Most adults in the US are free of symptoms,” says Peter Ganz, MD, cardiology division chief at San Francisco General Hospital. By the time you do experience problems, your body may be treading on dangerous terrain. Symptoms reflect the location of the affected arteries—chest pain upon physical activity (heart); numbness or weakness in the arms or legs, or pain in the legs (a condition called peripheral arterial disease, or PAD); or a momentary problem with speech or movement (brain). Men may experience erectile dysfunction if the pelvic arteries are involved. In one study, patients with systemic atherosclerosis were 22% more likely to have a cardiovascular event—a rate that shot up to 38% among patients who had diabetes as well (American Heart Association meeting, 2007).
Atherosclerosis is a chronic condition that typically starts in childhood. Deposits of fatty material, cholesterol, cellular waste, calcium and other substances thicken the innermost layer (endothelium) of your arteries, some more than others. Plaque beats up arteries so badly that blood cells called platelets may mobilize at the site of the plaque in an attempt to make repairs. However their presence causes inflammation, which results in even more plaque, further thickening the arterial walls. To compensate for the damage the body tries to widen the vessels, but by this point they can’t help but shrink.
Now blood huffs and puffs through the vessels like water through corroded pipes, carrying too little oxygen and nutrients to the body’s cells. This reduction in oxygen can cause a blood clot, which can break off and head straight to the brain (resulting in stroke) or the heart (heart attack). Or the plaque itself might rupture, causing a clot to form at the site.
The older you get, the more likely you are to develop atherosclerosis, which typically hits men ten years earlier than women, according to Ganz. A family history of premature (before age 60) cardiovascular disease, especially in your parents or siblings, also means an increased risk.
Cause of the Clog
A number of conditions hasten the process by which plaques build up on artery walls. High levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the “bad” cholesterol) and low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the “good” kind) in the blood play a role in plaque development (see box on previous page).
Compounds in tobacco smoke, either from lighting up or through secondhand exposure, speed the disease’s progression in the aorta, the body’s main artery, and in the arteries of the heart and legs. Obesity taxes the major organs and can lead to diabetes, itself a major cardiovascular risk factor. According to researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine, “there is increasing evidence that type 1 and type 2 diabetes are associated with an enhanced inflammatory state and that inflammatory cells contribute to atherosclerotic lesion initiation and lesion disruption (the process by which a plaque bursts)” (Circulation Research 10/10/08).
While getting older is definitely an issue in atherosclerosis development, the way you’ve spent those years can make a big difference. Adams says that increasing age is a risk factor for individuals “who have lived a life ingesting white flour products, dairy products, nightshade plants (particularly white potatoes, bell peppers and tomatoes), alcoholic beverages, processed table salt, processed and pre-packaged foods, and foods grown and processed with pesticides, preservatives, antibiotics or hormones.” You can add the use of caffeine and other stimulants, along with recreational drugs and, of course, tobacco to the list.
There is another factor, one which traditional healers zeroed in on a long time ago: inflammation. For example, in Chinese medicine, which views the body quite differently than Western medicine does, “the root of [the problem] is systemic inflammation, or ‘heat,’” explains Leon Hammer, MD, clinic director at Dragon Rises College of Oriental Medicine in Gainsville, Florida. “Excess ‘heat’ accumulates in the tissues. In order to save the vital organs, the body wants to eliminate the ‘heat’ (through the urine, bowels or skin); store it in the blood; balance it by cooling it with the accumulation of ‘damp,’ or fatty acids (lipids); or, as a last resort, divert it to the joints, muscles and fascia. But over time, the fluid in the body is depleted and the vessel walls dry out, resulting in possible atherosclerosis. The relationship between this disease and systemic inflammation has been known and treated accordingly for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.”
Conventional medicine has finally caught up. The American Heart Association now recognizes research suggesting that not only does the body respond to injury by producing inflammation, but that the inflammation itself can lead to the formation of artery-jamming blood clots.
But what causes the inflammation that leads to atherosclerosis? Certainly low-level infections, such as those associated with dental woes, play a role. (For more on oral health and heart disease, see Malady Makeover on page 20.) But don’t discount stress. “The primary sources of ‘heat’ in the vessels come from daily, moderate repression of emotion involving an internal conflict, or slowly growing anger and resentment that you can’t express directly; and any activity that makes an organ (most likely in the digestive system) work beyond its capacity,” says Hammer.
Again, Western medicine is catching up. “We certainly recognize that there are psychosocial contributors to heart disease,” says Richard Becker, MD, a professor at Duke University School of Medicine. He says that Duke scientists have investigated how anxiety and hostility influence the development of atherosclerosis. The conclusion they reached, Becker says, is that “the body’s responses to what’s considered threatening, which is both genetically and environmentally determined, likely contribute to high blood pressure, diabetes and surges in adrenalin.”
Don’t forget environmental pollutants. “We’re surrounded by toxicity, the biggest source from hydrocarbons,” says Hammer. He has also found, in people under 30, “significant amounts of radiation,” coming mainly from cordless phones, iPods, computers and microwaves. He believes that, in Chinese medicinal terms, these devices are “drying out the blood vessels.”
Clearing the Pipes
If leg pain or other symptoms indicate that you might have atherosclerosis, see your health practitioner. He or she should ask you about any known risk factors before ordering any needed tests; in addition to cholesterol, glucose and pressure checks, testing should include a check for C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker for underlying systemic inflammation. For a different take on testing, you could visit a practitioner who uses the traditional Chinese approach to diagnosis.
“Through Chinese medical diagnostic techniques,” says Hammer, “especially pulse diagnosis, it’s possible to detect the process of atherosclerosis almost from its inception, decades before [it] becomes symptomatic.”
To prevent atherosclerosis from narrowing your arteries, Adams urges you to opt for a healthier, preferably organic, diet, one that focuses on fresh produce and whole grains flavored with sea salt and such natural sweeteners as stevia, which doesn’t affect blood sugar. Adams advises you to drink raw goat milk or that made from rice or nuts. Coconut and grape seed oils are “among the few oils that don’t become toxic when heated,” she says. Adams also advises drinking from two to three quarts of pure, filtered water every day and sleeping at least seven to eight hours each night.
Complement your diet with 30 to 60 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Aerobic effort, such as walking, will improve circulation and cardiovascular fitness while resistance exercise, such as weight lifting, will condition your muscles so they’ll use oxygen more efficiently. A good workout also encourages the growth of new blood vessels, which can detour around vascular obstructions. In one study of 156 people with PAD, regular walking improved both endurance and quality of life (JAMA 1/14/09). In addition, exercise can help you manage stress; other stress-busters include deep breathing, meditation and yoga.
Making dietary and lifestyle changes can help you get a handle on heart-harming inflammation, as can a number of specific nutrients. For instance, omega-3 fatty acids, the kind found in fish and flax seed oils, promote the release of the body’s own anti-inflammatory substances. Grape seed extract contains oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs), which help strengthen blood vessels and protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation. Two spices—ginger, used in Asian cuisines, and turmeric, a curry component—have been found to fight inflammation. Another kitchen staple, pineapple, yields bromelain, which is also a recognized as an anti-inflammatory (and which is available in supplement form). If inflammation persists, ask your practitioner about being tested for food allergies. Such common allergens as wheat and dairy products may goad your immune system into releasing substances that promote an inflammatory response.
So if warning signals such as peripheral arterial disease arise, pay close attention. “Your body is designed to heal itself,” says Adams. Why wait until you know you’ve got atherosclerosis before you do something about it? Don’t let past mistakes compromise your future health. Making wise choices today will let you take control of your vascular—and cardiac—well-being for years to come.