A person's arteries can become clogged by a buildup of a substance called plaque. There are no quick fixes for melting away plaque, but people can make key lifestyle changes to stop more of it accumulating and to improve their heart health.
In serious cases, medical procedures or surgery can help to remove blockages from within the arteries. A doctor may also prescribe medication, such as aspirin, or cholesterol-reducing drugs, such as statins.
In this article, we take a close look at how to prevent plaque buildup, along with risk factors and complications when someone's arteries are clogged.
Plaque is a mixture of fat, calcium, cholesterol, and waste from the cells in the body. This mix can stick to the walls of the arteries, making these blood vessels narrower. When this happens, it is called atherosclerosis.
In many cases, people can prevent a plaque buildup and atherosclerosis. Some medical treatments are available to help clear the arteries, but they are invasive.
The best treatment is usually prevention, as removing plaque is much more difficult than preventing it from occurring.
Eating a heart-healthful diet and regularly exercising can be powerful tools for preventing clogged arteries. These disciplines also make a person feel better as time goes on.
People can prevent clogged arteries with the following lifestyle changes:
Avoiding trans fats
The type of fat a person eats can affect plaque in the arteries. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommend that a person limits their intake of saturated fats and trans fats. This is because these kinds of fats contain high levels of LDL cholesterol, which is the main material of plaque in the arteries.
Foods that are high in trans fats include:
- fried foods
- processed packaged foods
- cakes, pies, and pastries
- cookies and biscuits
- margarine or butter substitutes
- vegetable shortening
- products with partially hydrogenated oils, otherwise known as trans fats
Along with trans fats, saturated fats may also affect heart health, though the evidence for this is mixed. Saturated fats are mostly found in animal products, such as beef, pork, and dairy, but also in coconut oil and palm oil.
One review of scientific studies found there was a small but possibly important reduction in the risk of cardiovascular issues when people cut down on saturated fats and replaced them with unsaturated fats.
Another review study suggests that people should avoid saturated fats because they increase LDL cholesterol in the body, which is a direct cause of heart issues.
Eating more unsaturated fats
Unsaturated fats are the good fats. They contain HDL cholesterol, which can help to take bad cholesterol from the arteries before it turns into plaque.
According to the AHA, unsaturated fats may help improve blood cholesterol when eaten instead of trans or saturated fats.
Unsaturated fats are mainly found in plants and fatty fish. Sources include:
- some vegetable oils including sunflower and olive
- fatty fish, including trout, herring, and salmon
Following other dietary tips
The AHA recommend that people aiming to lower their LDL cholesterol eat a diet rich in:
- whole fruits and vegetables
- whole grains
- low-fat dairy
They also recommend limiting sugary foods, red meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Drinking herbal teas
Drinking teas, such as green or black tea, rooibos tea, or ginger tea may be good heart-healthy substitutes for other beverages.
A study from 2011 found that drinking 6 cups of rooibos tea per day for 6 weeks helped to lower the amount of LDL cholesterol in the blood in adults who were at risk for heart diseases.
Ginger supplementation may also improve significant markers that can lead to cardiovascular events, according to a 2016 study. Ginger root can be found as a supplement, but people can also brew it in hot water, and drink it as a tea.
A range of herbal teas is available for purchase online.
Taking part in cardiovascular exercise, otherwise known as cardio, on a regular basis may also help strengthen the heart and reduce plaque.
Simple cardio activities that raise the heart rate include:
- brisk walking
- playing tennis
- doing aerobics
A person should aim to do 30 to 60 minutes of exercise that raises the heart rate for a good workout. A doctor may recommend a specific exercise routine to fit an individual, based on various lifestyle factor.
Other ways to prevent clogged arteries
Stop smoking. According to the AHA, smoking is a major risk factor. It directly damages the arteries and can make fatty deposits grow faster and become larger.
Stress reduction. Psychological stress levels may also cause a reaction in the body. Stress-reduction techniques, including yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises may help some people relax during a hectic day.
When prevention methods are not effective, a person may need medical intervention to try and alleviate the effects of clogged arteries.
A doctor may recommend medications to lower LDL cholesterol to use alongside dietary changes. These actions should be seen as an additional help rather than as solutions.
Similarly, a blocked artery may require surgical treatment. This could involve inserting a tube into the artery to remove the plaque while leaving behind a stent to support the artery walls and increase blood flow.
With severe blockages, doctors may perform surgery called a heart bypass to make sure the blood can get around the obstructed artery.
Below is a 3-D model of atherosclerosis, which is fully interactive. You can explore this model using your mouse pad or touchscreen.
There are some risk factors for clogged arteries that people can manage themselves, including:
- high blood pressure
- unhealthy cholesterol levels
- insulin resistance and diabetes
- lack of physical activity
- an unhealthful diet
When someone employs the tips listed above, they will be taking a step in the right direction. If they are worried about their risk factors, they should speak with their doctor.
Clogged arteries, if they are left unchecked, can lead to conditions such as:
- Heart disease, which is where plaque builds up in the arteries in and around the heart.
- Angina, a condition where chest pain results from a lack of blood flow to the heart.
- Peripheral artery disease, which is where plaque builds up in the arms and legs.
A person's arteries get narrower over their lifetime. The process usually speeds up after the age of 30. Typically, it does not become a problem until a person is in their 50s or 60s.
Removing plaque from the arteries is not a simple process. It may involve invasive procedures that can impact a person's quality of life.
Taking steps to prevent or slow down the formation of plaque is the best way to avoid clogged arteries at any stage in life. This will be especially helpful for a person who is at risk of a plaque buildup or atherosclerosis.
A doctor will be able to recommend diet and lifestyle tips tailored to an individual's requirements and current abilities, and they can discuss any necessary treatment or prevention options.