This is the first blog in a series we’re calling Pass Along Heart Health. Please use one of the buttons to share this important information, so that others may enjoy the benefits of a healthier heart now and long into the future!
Medical science has advanced a long way from the days when we only knew that a high fat diet was associated with so-called “hardening of the arteries” (atherosclerosis). For instance, we now know that different types of plaque can build up in our arteries, and that the dangerous artery plaque may even have its own genetic ”signature”. This knowledge might one day lead to even more effective treatments and prevention. But for now, it’s essential to understand some of the risk factors for the build-up of arterial plaque, and action steps you can take starting today.
What is plaque?
Plaque is the gunk that can build up inside our arteries. It is comprised of cholesterol, calcium, fat, cellular debris and platelets. When too much plaque builds up, it can form a thick, hard deposit that narrows the arteries and reduces their flexibility. If a clot forms and is blocked inside that narrowed artery, it might result in a heart attack or stroke.
There are two kinds of plaque. The more stable kind builds up as bumps or streaks on artery walls. The more dangerous kind is associated with heart attacks and strokes. As Italian researchers have discovered, this more dangerous kind may have an important genetic signature that makes it easier to identify.
As reported in the scientific journal Stroke, these Italian researchers found altered expression of specific small segments of genetic material called microRNAs in people who had strokes. They hope that this discovery will one day lead to the development of ways to prevent and treat stroke.
In the meantime, we should all be focused on keeping our arteries healthy and pliable, because damaged arteries trap more plaque. Some of the major risk factors for atherosclerosis include a poor diet, family history, obesity, uncontrolled high blood pressure and cigarette smoking.
Managing your cholesterol levels is one of the most important steps you can take to leading a heart-healthy lifestyle. As the American Heart Association (AHA) explains, “When too much LDL (bad) cholesterol circulates in the blood, it can slowly build up on the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain.” The AHA adds that, “As blood cholesterol rises, so does the risk of coronary heart disease.”
This is why Dr. Oz likes plant sterols
In his newsletter distributed earlier this year, Dr. Oz recommends choosing foods that help to block the absorption of cholesterol.” Plant sterols, also called phytosterols, are naturally occurring compounds found in plant membranes. They are structurally similar to the cholesterol found in foods or made by our body, and work by blocking the absorption of cholesterol from the intestinal tract. They reduce the amount of cholesterol absorbed by the body, and the cholesterol that is not absorbed is eliminated.
“This ends up lowering the amount of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood.” explains Rebecca S. Reeves, DrPH, RD, FADA. “With the availability of CoroWise® plant sterols in foods, beverages and dietary supplements, there is an additional way to help support healthy cholesterol levels and maintain heart health,” she adds.
Upon review of existing evidence, the U.S. FDA concluded that “there is significant scientific agreement that plant sterols/stanols reduce total and LDL cholesterol levels” and several years ago authorized a health claim describing the relationship between dietary intake of plant sterols and reduced risk of heart disease. The current health claim states that, “Foods containing at least 0.4 grams per serving of plant sterols, eaten twice a day with meals for a daily total intake of at least 0.8 grams, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.” In December 2010, FDA proposed updates to the health claim, including a new minimum inclusion level of 0.5 grams per serving of plant sterols and a recommended intake of 2 grams per day for the claimed benefits, though the health claim rule has yet to be finalized.
Research shows that in two to three weeks, there is generally a measurable effect of regular consumption of plant sterols on cholesterol levels.