Fats, Arteries and You
Do you have healthy arteries?
If blood vessels become narrowed or blocked by fatty deposits, a condition known as atherosclerosis, blood won’t flow as easily around your body, your heart is forced to work harder and your blood pressure will rise.
It might seem logical to adopt a low-fat diet to reduce your risk of atherosclerosis, but this is misleading advice.
If you or a loved one has developed atherosclerosis or you’re concerned you may be at risk, read on to learn more about the fats in your blood, what causes them to become unbalanced and why there’s more to the story than fats.
Triglycerides and Cholesterol
These two lipids travel around your body in your bloodstream. Triglycerides provide a short-term energy reserve and transport fats into storage if the energy isn’t needed. Too many triglycerides in the blood is connected with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Cholesterol probably doesn’t need any introduction. You might have been told cholesterol is a baddie to be reduced at all costs. This idea came about because elevated cholesterol has been linked with cardiovascular disease, too.
But in reality you can’t live without cholesterol. It’s needed to make the membranes around all your body cells as well as the protective jackets on nerves allowing them to communicate with each other. Plus it’s used to manufacture sex and stress hormones, to make vitamin D, and to produce bile, used by your body to digest the fat in your food. In fact, it’s so crucial your liver makes around 75% of your cholesterol, with only around a quarter coming from your diet.
Because they’re fatty substances, triglycerides and cholesterol don’t mix with water so they can’t travel around in your bloodstream on their own without clumping together or rising to the top like cream on top of milk. So your body packages them into a transport envelope called a lipoprotein. These are soluble in water and blood, so the fats can be easily transported to wherever they’re needed.
Cholesterol can be packaged into various forms, probably the most well-known being low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). These different types of lipoproteins behave in distinct ways.
LDL and HDL Explained
Put simply, LDL takes cholesterol to your arteries, while HDL transports it to your liver where it’s dealt with and excreted in your faeces. Generally, less LDL and more HDL in the blood seem to be linked with a reduced risk of atherosclerosis. But both these types of cholesterol differ in their size and density, and this affects how they behave, so the situation is more complicated than it first appears.
Small, dense LDL can easily stick to artery walls, while if the LDL is oxidised, it poses a higher risk. This is because oxidised cholesterol is recognised by special cells in your immune system called macrophages, the large white blood cells tasked with engulfing and swallowing invaders. These then transform into substances called foam cells. The cholesterol makes the macrophage look foamy, hence its name.
Foam cells collect on artery walls and eventually turn into plaques, attracting minerals and waste products from cells and narrowing the diameter inside the arteries, pushing up blood pressure. They’re far more likely to collect on an artery wall if it’s been damaged by oxidative stress.
So although it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your triglyceride and cholesterol ratios, while bearing in mind the importance of particle size and density, it’s also hugely important to guard against oxidative stress.
Food and Your Blood Fats
You can influence the lipids in your blood by the food you eat.
- Reducing peaks and troughs in blood glucose by avoiding sugar, processed carbohydrates, alcohol and caffeine, means fewer triglycerides and better lipid ratios in your blood.
- Make sure you’re eating plenty of antioxidants from colourful plant foods to prevent oxidised LDL cholesterol from collecting on damaged artery walls.
- Healthy fats from olive oil, avocados, nuts and oily fish can help promote a healthy ratio of blood lipids. Fish oil, for example, has been found to increase LDL particle size, making it less likely to collect in your arteries.
- Garlic has been found in research to reduce triglycerides and LDL cholesterol, and protect artery walls.
- Avoid excessive fructose, found in soft drinks as high-fructose corn syrup, because it’s strongly linked with high triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol.
- Fibre from plant foods is really useful because it binds cholesterol in the digestive tract and assists its removal.
Functional Medicine for Healthy Arteries
Food choices, combined with targeted supplements, herbs and lifestyle measures can effectively reduce oxidative stress while helping your body regulate its blood lipids. Functional tests can pinpoint your cholesterol levels and examine density and particle size.