by Lisa James
Energy Times, January 3, 2002
An American suffers a heart attack
every 20 seconds. That adds up to 180 heart attacks every
hour. Many of these life-threatening events don't have to
happen: heart-healthy nutrients, weight control and exercise
could ease this epidemic.
More evidence of how to protect your heart piles up every
day, amounting to a stack of research thicker than the
juiciest, most heart-threatening cheeseburger on a big, fat
bun. To protect your heart, you've got to protect your
arteries, the blood vessels that carry blood from the heart
and also feed the heart muscle oxygen and nutrients.
Arteries are essentially three-layered tubes: the inner
endothelium, a middle muscle layer which allows the artery
to widen and contract, and an outer layer that encloses and
supports the other two. When the lining, which is normally
smooth, is damaged, the resulting rough patch develops
plaque from LDL cholesterol, and the artery narrows and
When LDL cholesterol is oxidized into plaque, the
resulting damage attracts large immune cells called
macrophages which consume the oxidized LDL and get trapped
in the developing plaque. Oxidized LDL is also associated
with the death of muscle cells in the artery's middle layer
(Circulation 2000; 102:2680). Plaque slows blood flow to the
heart and can result in angina, chest pain often brought
about by exertion. Heart attacks strike when unstable plaque
ruptures, triggering blood clotting that blocks blood flow
and may kill sections of the heart muscle as it's cut off
from oxygen and nutrients.
Foods, like fatty meats, filled with saturated fat, are
believed to start this heart-threatening process. Even by
age 15, your arteries may be narrowing.
Antioxidants can help keep your arteries functioning
smoothly by counteracting LDL oxidation. Lab research has
shown that cells in the lining can be protected by natural
vitamin E. Eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and
whole grains is an important step in stocking your
antioxidant arsenal. But many heart experts recommend
supplementation, a strategy that's been shown to bolster the
body's defenses (J Nutr Biochem 2001; 12:388-95).
Vitamins C and E: The Dynamic Duo
Antioxidant allies abound, but two of the most important are
vitamin C and natural vitamin E. They work particularly well
together because C is effective in the fluid that bathes all
cells, while E defangs free radicals in the fatty areas,
such as cell membranes. And vitamin C actually recharges
vitamin E, increasing E's antioxidant effectiveness.
Each vitamin provides protective benefits on its own. People
with Type 2 (adult onset) diabetes who took vitamin E in one
study saw drops in cholesterol and glucose and increases in
antioxidants, such as superoxide peroxidase, produced by the
body itself (Endocr Res 2001; 27:377-86).
For its part, vitamin C has prevented free radical damage in
individuals who inhale secondhand cigarette smoke and has
improved artery lining function in persons with coronary
artery disease (Free Radic Biol Med 2000; 28:428-36;
Circulation 1999; 99:3234-40).
When used together, this vitamin dynamic duo provides
powerful protection against both LDL oxidation and high
blood pressure (Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol 2000;
20:2087-93; Hypertension 2000; 36:142-6). They also help
keep immune cells from sticking to arterial linings (Circ
Res 2000; 87:349).
Vitamins C and E also seem to prove effective against
inflammation that researchers think contributes to heart
Research in this area continues, but scientists now believe
that inflammation from infections with herpes simplex one,
the cold sore virus, and Chlamydia pneumoniae, a respiratory
tract bug, can foment heart trouble. Inflammation may slow
blood flow to the heart and make clots more likely. Among
persons with peripheral arterial disease, blockages in arms
and legs, not getting enough vitamin C levels may increase
inflammation (Circulation 2001; 103:1863). Vitamin E
apparently soothes inflammation by decreasing the release of
immune chemicals and calming the immune cells involved in
atherosclerosis (Diet and Optimum Health Conference, 5/01,
Portland OR). Clot Busters Vitamin E also reduces the risk
of clots and lowers the chance of a clot sticking in a
vessel. It keeps platelets, cells that cause clotting, from
becoming too gooey and breaks up fibrin, a clot-forming
protein. Garlic (Allium sativa) also discourages
inappropriate clotting. Used medicinally since the beginning
of recorded time, the Greek physician Dioscorides thought it
could clean the arteries. The ancient faith in garlic's
circulatory benefits are supported by modern research.
Recent studies have found substances in garlic that keep
platelets from clumping together and lower cholesterol. In
one study, men with high cholesterol who took garlic extract
for five months saw their total cholesterol drop an average
of 7% and their LDL drop 10% (J Nutr 2001; 131:989S-93S).
Hunting Down Homocysteine
Homocysteine, an amino acid found in the blood, may also be
linked to artery problems. Scientists believe that when too
much homocysteine accumulates in the bloodstream, arteries
stiffen and plaque forms. The causes of this buildup remain
murky but it appears that perpetually angry folks have
higher homocysteine levels. Estimates vary on how much of a
risk factor homocysteine represents; between 10% and 40% of
people who suffer heart attacks may have high levels.
Excessive homocysteine also seems to be linked to other risk
factors, such as insulin resistance, a diabetes precursor
(Diabetes Care 2001; 24:1403-10).
The good news: the so-called DASH diet-featuring fruits,
vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, nuts and fish-may
reduce homocysteine and drop your heart disease risk by 7%
to 9% (Circulation 2000; 102:852-7). More benefits: simple B
vitamins can control homocysteine. Folic acid (folate),
along with vitamins B6 and B12, may help break it down and
render it harmless. Taking these vitamins in supplement form
has been shown to reduce homocysteine (Lancet 2000;
355:517-22). What's more, natural vitamin E may be able to
restore artery lining function when homocysteine levels are
high (Am J Cardiol 2001; 88:285-90). If you really want your
ticker to tick stronger and longer, go long on your ready
supply of heart healthy nutrients.