Are you thinking about your heart when you're indulging in greasy fries, late nights, or a cigarette? Probably not. But each one of these habits can start to stockpile, eventually clogging up your arteries. Making some conscious diet and lifestyle shifts can help avoid that fate and keep those arteries clean and clear.
Cardiovascular disease is the largest cause of death in the United States 1, but there’s good news: it can be avoided, and it all comes down to the health of your arteries.
When cholesterol and fat build up on the walls of the arteries, forming plaque, they become hard and narrow (a condition called arteriosclerosis). This reduces the blood flow to the heart and can cause chest pain or discomfort (angina). Sometimes, plaque can break open, producing a blood clot. If the blood clot is large enough, it can completely block blood flow and cause a heart attack. If an artery that leads to or is located in the brain gets blocked, you may have a stroke.2
Excessive amounts of “bad cholesterol” (LDL) can cause blockages in our arteries. Triglycerides, which are produced in the liver after consuming alcohol or an excessive amount of calories, are also harmful.3 High blood pressure and blood sugar, smoking, stress, and blood vessel inflammation can all damage the inner layer of the arteries and lead to plaque buildup.4
But this plaque buildup is not completely irreversible. It all comes down to – you guessed it – your diet and lifestyle. So here’s how you can give your arteries a thorough detox.
1. Go The Mediterranean Way
Most of us know that eating a well-balanced diet can do your heart good. With its abundance of unsaturated fats and antioxidants, the Mediterranean diet is often touted as the best plan for supporting your heart. Those that live in the Mediterranean region typically enjoy a rich diet of olive oil, nuts, legumes, whole grains, fish and seafood, small portions of lean meat and chicken, and limited amounts of red meat, eggs, butter, and sweets. This diet is naturally high in fiber and includes more fruits and vegetables than a typical American diet. Following the Mediterranean diet can lower cholesterol and triglycerides, stabilize blood sugar, and reduce the risk of heart disease.5
2. Focus On Your Fats
The American Heart Association recommends restricting saturated fats and trans fat (to 5-6% of your daily calories – that’s about 13 grams for a 2,000-calorie diet) while consuming more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. This means laying off the butter, cheese, cream, and baked goods like cakes, donuts, and cookies that contain harmful trans fats. Instead, reach for unsalted nuts and seeds and fatty fish like salmon and sardines. If you’re craving red meat, opt for the leanest cuts. 6
3. Cut Back On Sugar And Salt
Sugar can contribute to high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and obesity. The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons or 100 calories of sugar per day, while men should limit themselves to 9 teaspoons or 150 calories. A good way to satisfy that sweet tooth is with a serving of fresh, antioxidant-rich fruit.7 Too much salt (particularly processed table salt) can also raise your blood pressure and clog up those arteries.
4. Enjoy Artery-Friendly Foods
Some specific foods are especially helpful in keeping those arteries clean, including:
- Chickpeas and Oats: The soluble fiber in oats and pulses like chickpeas can bind to cholesterol in the digestive system and remove it before it moves in on your arteries. Studies have shown that both oats8 and chickpeas 9 can lower LDL and total cholesterol without impacting HDL levels.
- Pomegranates: One study found that people with carotid artery disease who had pomegranate juice for a year lowered blood pressure and reduced arterial thickening by up to 30%, while those who didn’t saw a 9% increase in thickness. Researchers believe it’s the antioxidants present in pomegranates that are responsible for these beneficial effects.10
- Garlic: Sulfur compounds found in garlic can lower cholesterol. In fact, a study found that having garlic for 6–8 months can lower serum cholesterol and triglycerides, and raise HDL cholesterol in both people with coronary heart disease and healthy individuals.11
- Avocado: Full of monounsaturated fats, antioxidant vitamins A, E, and C, and soluble fiber, avocados have been found to lower LDL and total cholesterol as well as increase HDL.12 Try spreading some avocado on your toast instead of butter – you may find it to be even more delicious!
- Nuts: Having 50 to 100 g of nuts – including almonds, pecans, and walnuts – five times or more per week can significantly reduce LDL and total cholesterol, and has proven to be better for your heart than a low-fat diet.13
- Ayurvedic Herbs: For lowering cholesterol, Ayurveda recommends the use of the herb guggul, as well as a blend of garlic and honey. Other herbs like turmeric, calamus, safflower, myrrh, and saffron may also be beneficial for people with arteriosclerosis. 14
5. Get Moving
Those who want to maintain their cholesterol and triglyceride levels should exercise more than 30 minutes a day, five times a week, combining moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (like brisk walking or cycling) with low-intensity resistance training (like pushups). If you already have high cholesterol, you’ll want to increase the intensity of resistance training to a moderate or high level.15
If you’re just starting an exercise program, yoga is a great way to ease into it. In fact, yoga has been found to be just as good as aerobic exercise for your heart. It can lower LDL cholesterol, help you lose weight, and lower blood pressure. And it has a secret trick up its sleeve: It’s a stress-buster that can help you relax like nothing else.16
6. Sleep To Good Health
Getting plenty of good sleep is important for just about every aspect of your health, including your cholesterol levels. Sleep deprivation has been linked to obesity and can also affect the balance of ghrelin and leptin, hormones that regulate your hunger.17
7. Say No To Smoking
Smoking is responsible for one out of every three deaths due to cardiovascular disease.18 Harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke can inflame the cells that line blood vessels. Smoking can also encourage the formation of plaque and lower HDL cholesterol levels.19
But quitting smoking can undo some of the damage: Within a year of quitting, the risk for heart attack decreases drastically, and within five years your risk of a stroke is almost the same as that of a non-smoker. 20
References [ + ]
|1, 18.||↑||Smoking And Cardiovascular Disease, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.|
|2.||↑||What Is Coronary Heart Disease? National Institutes of Health.|
|3.||↑||Your Guide To A Healthy Heart, National Institutes of Health.|
|4.||↑||What Causes Coronary Heart Disease? National Institutes of Health.|
|5.||↑||Mediterranean diet, National Institutes of Health. 2014.|
|6.||↑||The American Heart Association’s Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations, The American Heart Association.|
|7.||↑||Added Sugars Add to Your Risk of Dying from Heart Disease, American Heart Association.|
|8.||↑||Braaten, J. T., P. J. Wood, F. W. Scott, M. S. Wolynetz, M. K. Lowe, P. Bradley-White, and M. W. Collins. “Oat beta-glucan reduces blood cholesterol concentration in hypercholesterolemic subjects.” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 48, no. 7 (1994): 465-474.|
|9.||↑||Zahradka, Peter. “Effect of pulses on blood vessel function and atherosclerosis preventing hormones.” In Pulse Food Symposium. Toronto, Ontario. 2008.|
|10.||↑||Aviram, Michael, Mira Rosenblat, Diana Gaitini, Samy Nitecki, Aaron Hoffman, Leslie Dornfeld, Nina Volkova et al. “Pomegranate juice consumption for 3 years by patients with carotid artery stenosis reduces common carotid intima-media thickness, blood pressure and LDL oxidation.” Clinical Nutrition 23, no. 3 (2004): 423-433|
|11.||↑||Bordia, A. M. K. H. “Effect of garlic on blood lipids in patients with coronary heart disease.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 34, no. 10 (1981): 2100-2103.|
|12.||↑||Bergh, B. O. “The Avocado and Human Nutrition. II. Avocados and Your Heart.” In Proc. of Second World Avocado Congress, pp. 37-47. 1992.|
|13.||↑||Mukuddem-Petersen, Janine, Welma Oosthuizen, and Johann C. Jerling. “A systematic review of the effects of nuts on blood lipid profiles in humans.” The Journal of nutrition 135, no. 9 (2005): 2082-2089.|
|14.||↑||Frawley, David. Ayurvedic healing: a comprehensive guide. Lotus Press, 2000.|
|15.||↑||Mann, Steven, Christopher Beedie, and Alfonso Jimenez. “Differential effects of aerobic exercise, resistance training and combined exercise modalities on cholesterol and the lipid profile: review, synthesis and recommendations.” Sports Medicine 44, no. 2 (2014): 211-221.|
|16.||↑||Chu, Paula, Rinske A. Gotink, Gloria Y. Yeh, Sue J. Goldie, and MG Myriam Hunink. “The effectiveness of yoga in modifying risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” European Journal of Preventive Cardiology (2014): 2047487314562741.|
|17.||↑||Kaneita, Yoshitaka, Makoto Uchiyama, Nobuo Yoshiike, and Takashi Ohida. “Associations of usual sleep duration with serum lipid and lipoprotein levels.” Sleep 31, no. 5 (2008): 645.|
|19.||↑||High blood cholesterol levels, National Institutes of Health.|
|20.||↑||Smoking And Cardiovascular, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.|