Atherosclerosis

Hardening of the arteries is a term many people use for the disease doctors call atherosclerosis. The term is a bit deceptive, as it might give the image that the arteries simply harden, like a cooked macaroni noodle after it dries out. It would be more accurate to call this progressive condition narrowing of the arteries , because that is a closer description of what happens to the arteries from atherosclerosis.

Excess fats and cholesterol in our blood can irritate the inner lining of the arteries. With the continued intake of the standard American diet (SAD), the arteries begin to change in a more permanent way. The many small injuries attract blood clotting elements (platelets and white blood cells) to repair the damage and stimulate growth of muscle cells and eventually small scars inside the arteries begin to form. These scars are constantly exposed to the blood containing high levels of fat and cholesterol and they begin to swell. Each individual incident, and there can be hundreds, results in a collection of material that is called plaque. Plaque, which blocks the flow of blood, is made mostly of cholesterol.

Arteries can also be damaged by trauma from physical injuries or surgery. Prolonged high blood pressure tends to cause injuries. Chemical toxins, such as carbon monoxide and other products of tobacco smoke, as well as factors of some food proteins, can take their toll. Arteries, like most other parts of our body, try to heal themselves. When the irritating effect is not too severe or long term, healing happens. But when we continue to eat an excess of fats, proteins and toxins typical in the standard American diet, the damage is more than can be fully repaired by the body's natural healing system.

At first the buildup is mostly fat, but as the condition progresses, scars become the main component. These hard, fibrous plaques prevent the artery from remaining flexible, creating what is called hardening of the arteries . Plaques inside the walls of the arteries restrict the flow of blood to the organs that require it, particularly the heart muscles. Angina (pressure or intense chest pain) is mostly a result of muscles being deprived of blood they need to continue to function. When these muscles don't get enough fuel they can be permanently injured, unable to function again, causing heart failure. Atherosclerosis doesn't just block the arteries to the heart. Blood vessels in the entire body are affected and major organs can be severely taxed or fail from the lack of sufficient blood.

Plaque formations are doubly dangerous. As the arteries become more brittle, any excess pressure, perhaps from a sudden increase in activity, can rupture the arterial wall and can cause an aneurism or a stroke. If these plaque deposits break off, a clot can be sent to the heart and can cause a heart attack, or if it is in the artery feeding the brain, can result in a stroke.

For most people, atherosclerosis can be reversed. It was thought for many years that the damage was always permanent and the only way to make sure the heart could receive a sufficient blood supply was to repair the arteries through surgery. Unfortunately, many medical professionals still recommend angioplasty or by-pass surgery first, rather than giving their patients the choice of reversing their condition through a change in lifestyle.

Non-surgical reversal is not indicated for all persons. In those cases where the disease may have progressed too far, surgical intervention may be needed to save life. To be fair, physicians have found that not all persons are willing to make the drastic changes needed to regain a healthy heart. Some will promise themselves to follow lifestyle changes, only to abandon them as soon as they begin to feel better. Only consultation with your family physician and a cardiologist can determine what choice is best for you. In most cases, surgery can be put off for a month or two, and in that period a significant improvement can be made by following a program such as the one recommended here.

The progress of heart disease doesn't stop following angioplasty or a by-pass. These procedures allow more blood to flow to the heart, but the same process that caused the original problem is certain to cause these repaired or replaced arteries to become blocked again if changes in diet, exercise and dealing with stress are not made. If a person continues the same lifestyle that led to the problem, angioplasty or open heart surgery will often be needed again.

Next: Heart Attack

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©1994, 1996, 2002
Dr. Neal Pinckney
Healing Heart Foundation
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