Your cardiovascular system is only as healthy as the arteries that carry oxygen-rich blood to and from your heart. Ideally, your arteries would be clear and flexible, with a smooth, undamaged endothelium—that single layer of cells that line the inner surface of your arteries. But as you age, the effects of unhealthy habits can damage your arteries. When arteries become damaged—a condition called atherosclerosis—blood flow is eventually obstructed or even completely blocked.

Did you know?
Atherosclerosis is the underlying cause of about half of all deaths in the Western world. In the U.S. alone, it is responsible for one in every four deaths annually. (1)

What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is sneaky, developing silently over many years. It starts when the endothelium becomes compromised. This, in turn, triggers the formation of plaque at the site of the damage. Plaque is a fatty substance made up of cholesterol, calcium, cellular waste, and a blood-clotting material called fibrin. Over time, this plaque builds up inside your arteries, further damaging your endothelium. This causes your arteries to become narrow and stiff. It also causes your heart to work harder to push blood throughout the body.

As plaque accumulates, it can reduce the amount of blood that flows to your heart, brain, and other vital organs. Worse yet, if the plaque becomes unstable, it can rupture and cause a blood clot to form. This clot can then block the artery and trigger a heart attack or stroke.

Risk factors for atherosclerosis

Many things contribute to endothelial damage and plaque buildup. Some are things you have no control over. Others are preventable risk factors that you can do something about. The sooner you take steps to address the risks you can control, the more likely your chances of keeping atherosclerosis-related problems at bay. Risk factors include:

Did you know?
The early stages of atherosclerosis can begin in early childhood. (12)

woman sitting on couch holding her chest

Chest pain is just one of the symptoms of atherosclerosis. Familiarizing yourself with all the symptoms may help prevent a future heart attack or stroke.

Atherosclerosis symptoms

There typically aren’t any symptoms for mild to moderate atherosclerosis. Once an artery is severely damaged, you may experience the following symptoms – and they can vary depending on which arteries are affected.

The arteries leading to your heart

  • Chest pain
  • Pressure in the chest

The arteries leading to your brain

  • Numbness or weakness in your arms or legs
  • Difficulty speaking or slurred speech
  • Temporary loss of vision in one eye
  • Drooping facial muscles

The arteries in your arms and legs

  • Leg pain while walking

The arteries leading to your kidneys

  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney failure
close up of bowl with raw vegetables in salad form and a woman holding a fork, eating the salad

Focusing on anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory foods can be a delicious way to lower your risk of atherosclerosis.

Best diet to prevent atherosclerosis

According to a study that appeared in the journal Advances in Nutrition, the most beneficial diet to prevent atherosclerosis is the Mediterranean diet. (13) A Mediterranean diet—which includes lots of vegetables, as well as whole grains, high-quality protein, fruits, and nuts—not only supports healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels, it also helps to keep artery-damaging inflammation within a healthy range. (14)(15)(16) The best foods in the Mediterranean diet are omega-3 rich fish like salmon, beans, oats, olives, avocados, mushrooms, walnuts, tea, and dark chocolate. (17)

5 supplements for healthy arteries

Combined with a healthy diet, these supplements have been shown to prevent the progression of atherosclerosis.

1. Aged garlic extract

Aged garlic extract works in multiple ways to prevent atherosclerosis and improve overall heart health. One double-blind, randomized clinical trial of 88 patients with uncontrolled hypertension found that aged garlic extract lowered systolic blood pressure (the top number) as much as 11.5 mmHg and diastolic pressure (the bottom number) by 6.3 mm Hg compared to a placebo. (18)

Another clinical trial involving 65 firefighters found that a combination of aged garlic extract and coenzyme Q10 halted the progression of dangerous coronary artery calcification (CAC). After 12 months, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles found that those taking 1,200 mg of aged garlic extract and 120 mg of coenzyme Q10 had significant reductions in CAC progression, as well as decreases in the markers for inflammation and oxidative stress that can further damage the endothelial lining of blood vessels. (19) The newest findings show that aged garlic extract can also reduce the amount of unstable plaque in arteries. (20) This is critical since this type of plaque is more likely to rupture.

garlic gloves in a wooden bowl on a wooden cutting board with raw garlic next to it

Aged garlic extract works on multiple fronts to reduce the risk factors that contribute to atherosclerosis.

2. Coenzyme Q10

Boasting anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties, coenzyme Q10 provides energy to heart cells and protects the cardiovascular system from free radical damage. Research involving 51 patients with coronary artery disease showed that taking supplemental CoQ10 reduced a marker of free-radical-induced oxidation by as much as 29 percent. (21) Yet as we age, our body’s ability to make CoQ10 declines. Those taking statin drugs can also find their stores depleted. (22) Making matters worse, CoQ10 supplements are poorly absorbed by the body. Fortunately, studies show that a more bioavailable form of CoQ10 called ubiquinol provides 60% better absorption than standard CoQ10 supplements. (23) Over the past decade, studies have demonstrated that ubiquinol also inhibits LDL oxidation and may have a direct effect on the progression of atherosclerotic lesions. (24)

3. Magnesium

This mineral is essential for a healthy heart, yet many people don’t get enough. Clinical studies show a strong correlation between low magnesium levels and the formation of arterial calcium deposits that contribute to atherosclerosis. (25) Research in the Journal of Hypertension shows that magnesium helps to lower blood pressure, enhances blood flow, and improves endothelial function in people with mild atherosclerosis. (26) Plus recent findings in the International Journal of Hypertension note that adequate magnesium levels protect the lining of arteries and prevent the accumulation of platelets and debris along arterial walls. (27)

4. Vitamin K

Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin that escorts calcium out of the blood so it can be used to build strong bones and teeth. But if you’re short on vitamin K, this calcium is picked up by soft tissue throughout your body. This can be especially dangerous when it occurs in the delicate endothelial tissue that lines the walls of your arteries. (28) A study in the journal Atherosclerosis reported that vitamin K reverses the buildup of calcium deposits in post-menopausal women. (29) Another trial involving more than 4,800 men and women confirmed that getting enough vitamin K prevents aortic calcification and coronary heart disease (CHD). (30)

5. Zinc

Zinc is a critical antioxidant and anti-inflammatory mineral that lowers your risk for atherosclerosis. One way it does this is by reducing total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides that contribute to plaque buildup. (31) Supplementation has also been shown to keep a lid on cholesterol oxidation. (32) In addition, zinc lowers inflammation and vascular cell adhesion molecules—molecules that act like Velcro to snag cholesterol and cellular debris. (33) Eventually, this waste accumulates along artery walls and blocks blood flow.

Did you know?
Taking more than 15 mg of zinc on a long-term basis can cause a copper deficiency. If you do take a zinc supplement, make sure you also take 2 mg of copper to ensure you have enough of both minerals.

The bottom line

Atherosclerosis is the leading cause of heart attack and stroke. But because atherosclerosis takes so many years to develop, it can be easy to ignore. Instead of waiting until you’re diagnosed with atherosclerosis, get ahead of the curve with these artery-smart strategies. If you already have one or more risk factors for atherosclerosis, work with your integrative healthcare provider to develop a plan that supports your overall cardiovascular health.

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