With every heart beat, a rush of oxygen-rich blood is pushed through the arteries. As the blood pushes against the thick arterial walls, the walls stretch and then contract to move the blood along smoothly and in the right direction.
The heart of the matter is that arteries are underestimated. They don't get enough credit for all their hard work. They are more than just a simple tube that blood flows through. For starters, the heart continues to pump blood into them full force. As they continue to bear this force, blood is constantly pushing against the insides of their walls (what we call blood pressure).
Thankfully, our arteries come with three important layers to help them keep on keeping on. The outer layer provides structure for the two inner layers. The middle layer has elastic muscle fibers that give arteries the strength and flexibility they need to help control blood pressure and blood flow. The inner layer is known as the endothelium. It is this layer that makes our arteries shine in all their glory. To say that the endothelium is important is an understatement. Why?
Appreciate the Endothelium for what it is - An Organ!
The health of your entire cardiovascular system significantly depends on the health of the endothelial cells that make up this thin layer. In fact, your entire body depends on the health of the endothelium. Think about it! Endothelial cells line the walls of every artery that supplies blood and plays a role in every organ, from your eyes, ears, and brain to your kidneys, liver, and bones.
This layer is more than just a "passive bystander". It does more than simply contain the blood flowing through your body. It is an active, dynamic organ system that, according to the journal Vascular Medicine, is equivalent in size to about six tennis courts (though it barely weighs 1 kg)!
It maintains blood fluidity and controls the widening and narrowing of blood vessels. It's involved in the growth of new blood vessels and the repair of damaged one. Beyond its cardiovascular function, it is a metabolically active endocrine organ (the largest, in fact). It is even involved in immunity, acting as a barrier blocking toxic substances that could enter the arterial wall.
It comes as no surprise, then, that hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease are all related to endothelial dysfunction. The secret to preventing cardiovascular disease? A healthy endothelium! Focus on maintaining a flexible, resilient, strong, healthy endothelium. When plauqe builds up in arteries, they start to thicken, harden, and lose their elasticity. A process known as atherosclerosis ensues. Who is the instigator of this endothelium-damaging plaque buildup?
The Endothelium - Don't Disturb!
It might perplex most Americans that cholesterol isn't the only culprit. True, high LDL cholesterol can build up in vessel walls and block blood flow. Cholesterol, however, doesn't always tell the whole story. In fact, 50% of patients who suddenly die from sudden heart attack have normal LDL cholesterol levels.
So where does all this plaque come from? It comes from an irritated endothelium. When the endothelial cells are disturbed, an immune response is activated to fix the problem. This immune response leads to the formation of plaque. If the plaque is constantly exposed to inflammation or irritation it can rupture or form a clot or scab. A heart attack or stroke are then imminent.
Inflammation damages the endothelium. Anything that causes inflammation - from LDL cholesterol, high blood sugar and high triglycerides to smoking, lack of sleep, and stress - aggravates the endothelium.
Keep your Endothelium Healthy - Put your Heart into it!
Many are familiar with the nutrients that irritate the arteries and need to be limited - added sugars, sodium, cholesterol, trans fats, and saturated fats. If these aggravate the endothelium, then what can alleviate it?
- Omega-3's preserve endothelial function, especially its ability to dilate vessels and prevent stiffness. Be it sardines, salmon, or supplements, make sure you have a steady supply of omega-3s.
- Unsaturated fats in general, as opposed to saturated or trans fats, boost the anti-inflammatory properties of HDL ("good") cholesterol. Saturated fats impair HDL cholesterol and damage the endothelium. A study published in the journal Diabetes Care found that the "noxious effect" of a saturated fat-rich meal continues 2-6 hours after the meal. That's right! A single meal can harm your arteries. A simple trick: swap butter for more olive oil. Incorporate foods such as avocados, nuts, and seeds into your recipes.
- Oxidative stress reduces nitric oxide (NO), the main compound used by the endothelium for important functions. Antioxidants, such as flavanoids, vitamin C, and vitamin E, lower inflammation and stimulate NO production. Vitamin C also helps keep the arteries flexible.
- Don't just eat right, sleep right! It's no wonder those who sleep less than 7 hours per night have a 12-35% increased risk of death. Lack of sleep leads to less NO production and constricted blood flow. In one study, the endothelial function in physicians that were on-call for 24 hours was essentially abolished.
- Learn to relax. Believe it or not, mental stress has a direct effect on your endothelium. The journal Circulation found that even brief episodes of everyday mental stress cause up to 4 hours of endothelial dysfunction in otherwise healthy, young adults. Imagine what repeated, chronic, uncontrolled stress does! Whatever it takes - a stroll through the park, a couple deep breaths, a recording of nature sounds - don't let stress slow your endothelium down.
- Exercise. Need we say more? Probably not, but we will anyway. Even short bouts of exercise boost NO production and activity. Exercise helps correct oxidant/antioxidant balance and blood pressure. The best kind is regular, moderate intensity exercise since it produces less oxidation. Not only does it protect against endothelial dysfunction, it can correct it. Exercise can also slow down the inevitable decline in endothelial function that comes with aging.
Your best ammo against endothelial dysfunction is to have an overall healthy diet. Have your diet revolve around the main pillars of a healthy diet - vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat or non-fat dairy, fish, skinless poultry, nuts, and seeds.
For a healthy body and life, you need healthy arteries. Don't irritate or inflame your arteries. Protect them with a healthy lifestyle and a healthy diet
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