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Natural Ways to Sweep Plaque from Your Arteries
Foods, Supplements and Other Natural Strategies to Clear Your Pathways and Avoid Heart Disease
Mark Stengler, NDNational College of Natural Medicine
Special from Bottom Line's Daily Health NewsSeptember 30, 2008
Cardiovascular disease, the greatest health scourge of our time, often starts out with atherosclerosis -- insidious deposits of cholesterol, calcium, fats and cellular waste products that gradually build up in arteries and form a substance called plaque on walls injured by inflammatory changes. Plaque is dangerous in several ways -- first of all, it narrows the arteries, making it harder for blood to supply the heart muscle. Second, the plaque can break loose from artery walls and rupture, leading to blood clots that cause heart attacks and strokes. Also, the plaque causes further inflammation within the vessel, narrowing the artery yet more.
Ideally, we should all follow healthy lifestyles that minimize the likelihood plaque will begin building up. Yet sometimes our poor diet and exercise habits catch up with us, and for others, heart disease and vulnerability to atherosclerosis simply runs in families. Nowadays, the most common mainstream medical solution to plaque accumulation is to prescribe cholesterol-lowering statins. These drugs have many downsides though, including a number of potentially serious side effects, among them muscle and liver damage.
Regular Daily Health News contributor and naturopathic physician, Mark Stengler, ND, has a different approach -- he told me that sometimes his natural program to keep arteries clean can even be used in place of drug therapy. His regimen entails a number of simple but powerful and effective lifestyle changes to reverse or prevent the progression of plaque.
STENGLER'S "KEEP ARTERIES CLEAN" REGIMEN
Eating right is the first step. A heart-healthy, anti-plaque-and-inflammation diet consists of lots of whole, fresh, nutrient-rich foods and a minimum of processed products because they are low in nutrients but dense in unhealthy and inflammation-causing fats, sugars, sodium and additives. When it comes to healthy foods, Dr. Stengler's favorites include...
Cruciferous vegetables including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage and kale, which are abundant sources of disease-fighting antioxidants.
Pomegranates, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and other colorful fruits. These are packed with phytonutrients called flavonoids that possess potent antioxidant properties. Dr. Stengler recommends a small daily glass of sugarless pomegranate juice, noting that health benefits begin to add up with just 1.7 ounces a day. You can drink it straight-up or mixed in water, whatever tastes best to you.
Fiber-rich foods that not only boost digestive health, but also help the body eliminate cholesterol and balance blood sugar levels. Choose unrefined whole-grain breads, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, oat bran, legumes, nuts or seeds. They're easy to incorporate into nearly every meal, and a handful of walnuts or almonds makes for a heart-healthy snack.
Deep-water fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel and herring. These are rich in healthy, inflammation-fighting fats known as omega-3 fatty acids. Eat at least two servings a week. Other good dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids are flaxseed and walnuts.
ENGAGE IN REGULAR EXERCISE
Even if you follow a healthy diet, sitting at the computer all day and watching TV all evening is like signing up for heart disease. Exercise keeps you healthy by controlling blood lipid abnormalities and improving circulation. It can also help control stress, a well-known contributor to heart disease.
If you are in good health but have been inactive, start with 10 to 15 minutes of aerobic activity (brisk walking, biking, etc.) three times a week. Gradually work your way up to 30 to 45 minutes four to six (ideally seven) times weekly. If you have a pre-existing medical condition, consult your physician before embarking on a new exercise program.
According to Dr. Stengler, the simple secret to a successful exercise program is to find an activity that you truly find fun, whether it's dancing, swimming, riding a bike or taking a brisk walk. For greater enjoyment and accountability, schedule regular exercise dates with a friend, neighbor or coworker.
TAKE DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS
In addition to diet and exercise, there are effective, well-tolerated and natural supplements that help dissolve plaque and strengthen arteries. (Note: Several of these can interact unfavorably with blood thinning medications, including aspirin and warfarin, so be sure to take them under a
physician's oversight.) For better blood vessel health and optimal cardiovascular health overall,
Dr. Stengler often prescribes...
Fish oil supplements. Fish oil is an important source of two anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids -- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). There is some evidence that omega-3s slow the progression of plaque build-up in arteries, notes Dr. Stengler, and research demonstrates that people with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids have a lower risk for sudden cardiac death. Despite all these widely recognized benefits, the majority of Americans are woefully short on this vital, potentially lifesaving, healthful fatty acid.
Note: Depending on your personal health needs, your physician may advise you to take 1,500 mg to 2,000 mg combined EPA and DHA daily, says Dr. Stengler. Check the label to be sure it has been tested for heavy metal or other contamination. Dr. Stengler prefers Nordic Naturals and Carlson brands.
Garlic. Garlic has a long tradition of use as a heart remedy, and modern studies back up its benefits. In a small study at UCLA, patients on statin drugs also took aged garlic extract (AGE) or a placebo for one year. The group taking statins alone experienced a quicker progression of plaque formation than the group taking both statins and AGE. Those taking garlic had a 66% reduction in new plaque formation compared with those who took a placebo.
Vitamin E. There are two principle types -- tocopherols and tocotrienols, with Dr. Stengler recommending the latter. Studies have shown that vitamin E possesses an ability to reduce existing plaque, while also helping to prevent or reduce blood clots. He often prescribes Allergy Research Group Delta-Fraction Tocotrienols (www.allergyresearchgroup.com), available through nutrition-oriented physicians.
Vitamin K. Vitamin K, often overlooked, is an important nutrient in supporting cardiovascular health. It protects against calcium deposits. Look for vitamin K2, as it is more readily absorbed by the body and has a longer activity span than vitamin K1. A favorite of Dr. Stengler's is Jarrow Formulas MK-7 (www.jarrow.com). Levels of this vitamin must be closely monitored for those taking warfarin.
Fibrinolytics. Nattokinase, often combined with another enzyme, serrapeptase, may be able to reduce established plaque and decrease the degree of inflammation in blood vessels, improving circulation. A particularly potent formula, Neprinol, produced by Arthur Andrew Medical, is being evaluated in clinical trials.
WHEN LIFESTYLE CHANGES AREN'T ENOUGH
Lifestyle change and supplements are effective, but not always enough to undo years or decades worth of plaque build-up. Your physician may feel that it is necessary to prescribe medication. Even so, Dr. Stengler emphasizes that his regimen can continue to play a key role in fighting plaque and inflammation.
Mark Stengler, ND, a naturopathic physician and leading authority on the practice of alternative and integrated medicine. He is author of Bottom Line Natural Healing newsletter, author of The Natural Physician's Healing Therapies (Bottom Line Books), director of the La Jolla Whole Health Clinic in La Jolla, California and adjunct associate clinical professor at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon. To learn more about his work, visit www.drstengler.com.