If you’re reading this article, chances are you are at least somewhat concerned about the health of your arteries, your heart or maybe your overall health in general. Our goal is that you leave here armed with more knowledge about how your circulatory system works and, most importantly, what you can do on a daily basis to help keep your arteries healthy.
Before we jump into the five things we mentioned in the title, let’s talk a little bit about what arteries are and how they work. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood away from your heart to the parts of your body that need it. Don’t confuse these with veins, which carry used, oxygen-depleted blood back to your heart. Both are important, but your body needs a constant supply of oxygen to work which is why arterial health is so important.
One of the most serious consequences of clogged arteries is an increased risk of stroke. When arteries get clogged, they are being clogged with something called arterial plaque. This is a buildup of cholesterol on the linings of the arteries. When pieces of plaque break off in your arteries and clog them there can be serious problems. If a clog occurs in either of your carotid arteries (the large ones running up the sides of your neck) it can cut off blood flow to your brain, resulting in a stroke.
Now that we’re on the same page about why keeping arteries healthy is important, let’s jump into how to take care of them.
No surprise here. We’re sure you’ve heard multiple people throughout your life tell you that exercise is good for you: your doctor, your mom, your gym teacher…pretty much everyone. But has anyone ever explained why exercise is good for you? Or more specifically, good for keeping healthy arteries?
It turns out that exercising can increase the number of high-density lipoproteins, or HDLs, in your body. Remember that acronym, because we’ll be using it again. Some HDLs (known as “good cholesterol”) have been shown to reduce arterial plaque build ups. Exercise also strengthens your heart, which has the added benefit of lowering your blood pressure. Of course, exercise also burns body fat. Too much body fat puts additional pressure on your arteries and forces your heart to work harder than it has to.
Again, no surprise, but it has to be said. Did you know that 1-in-4 deaths related to cardiovascular disease can be traced back to smoking? Why does this happen? After all, you would expect smoking to mostly affect the lungs. However, your body is an interconnected machine and your lungs work in tandem with your heart to get blood where it needs to go.
Remember how we talked about HDL? Well, HDL has an evil twin, LDL, or low-density lipoprotein. Too much LDL leads to an increase in the buildup of cholesterol in your arteries. Smoking is especially bad because it raises your LDL level while lowering your HDL level. Not only that, but the chemicals in cigarettes cause blood vessels to become inflamed and swollen. When this happens, they get more rigid and narrow, allowing less blood to pass through and increasing blood pressure. The good news is, your body can start to heal itself when you quit smoking, naturally restoring the balance between LDLs and HDLs.
One of the best things you can do to lower cholesterol and improve your overall heart health is to make an effort to eat the right foods. The good news is, there are entire lists of effective heart-healthy diets. Out of all the options out there, what’s the best one? Whichever one works for you. Even if you don’t want to commit to a whole diet, you can still be intentional and work in certain foods that have been shown to improve heart health. Some good foods to incorporate into your diet include:
Stress is a strange thing. It’s entirely psychological, and yet it can have very real physical effects on our bodies. Headaches, fatigue, and yes, clogged arteries can all come from dealing with long-term stress. Over time, your body will respond to stress in lots of different ways, one of which is increasing the amount of cholesterol in your blood and plaque deposits in your arteries.
This might be the hardest factor to deal with. After all, the other items on this list are completely within your control. It might be hard, but everyone can establish a workout routine, watch what they eat and finally kick the habit and stop smoking. Unfortunately, you have very little control over when stressors enter your life. Your job, partner, kids, finances, the news…we have no shortage of sources of stress. So, while we can’t control when stressful things happen, we can control how we deal with them.
There are all kinds of healthy ways to de-stress, and how we blow off steam varies from person to person. Extroverts might go have a meal with friends; introverts might curl up with a good book. Crafty people might find something fun to make, while the handier among us might pick out a home improvement project. You can cook, zone out on a favorite album, take a bubble bath, or go for a run. Find something you really enjoy doing and be intentional about making time for it. Self-care doesn’t happen by accident.
This one isn’t for everyone, but arterial health is especially important for diabetes. In fact, did you know that diabetics are more likely to develop heart disease? One of the reasons for the increased risk is the high blood pressure that is associated with diabetes. When blood pressure is too high for too long, it damages the heart and the arteries. So, besides monitoring insulin levels, diabetics have to be especially aware of their heart health. The most important aspect of this is keeping blood sugar levels under control.
The two most common ways to do this are through diet and taking the appropriate medications. All of the heart-healthy food listed above still applies to diabetics although, because of their condition, they have to be even more careful about what they eat. As for medications, there are many different ones available. If you have diabetes, consult with your doctor and see which ones might be best for you.
The Bottom Line
It’s much easier to keep your arteries clear than it is to unclog them, and you can start working on everything we talked about in this article right now. There’s no time like the present. Plus, putting any of these into practice will have other great benefits besides preventing arterial plaque.
If you’re at all worried about the health of your arteries, for any reason, it’s always a good idea to get checked out. The best way to do that is through a screening that uses an ultrasound to check the current buildup of plaque in your arteries. These tests are noninvasive and take less than thirty minutes, making it a fast and easy way to get a better understanding of your health.