Atherosclerosis: The Silent Killer

by Evangeline Koutalianos, BSc Kinesiology 

I am currently studying medicine abroad, and sadly enough the fast food craze has hit as far as the Caribbean islands.  I am seeing patients on a weekly basis that have eaten themselves into a chronic disease, with no help from fried chicken or burger joints.  Fat-laden fried chicken may be a comfort to you at hard times, but when you’re stuck on the hospital bed… it is not coming to your savior.  The truth of the matter is…you are what you eat.  If you are consistently eating fast food, your insides tend to reflect that habit.  Eating high-saturated fatty foods increases your levels of “bad” cholesterol, which build up in your blood vessels and cause a whole range of problems in your entire body.  This is the beginning of a deadly process called Atherosclerosis: a condition that afflicts large and medium-sized arteries of almost everyone in societies where cholesterol-rich foods are abundant and cheap.

Cholesterol isn’t all that bad. Cholesterol is essential for building and maintaining your nervous system, skin, muscles, liver, intestines and your heart.  So you in fact, need cholesterol in your diet.  In fact, 20% of cholesterol comes from the foods we eat and 80% is made in the liver.  But like most things, there is a “good” and “bad” kind.  Cholesterol is driven by proteins in the blood stream.  These proteins are called lipoproteins.  “Lipo” means fat in Greek.  So it makes sense that these proteins are driving fat around the body.  Now these little protein vehicles, Lipoproteins, can be good and bad based on the amount of cholesterol they carry with them.  Lipoproteins that carry a lot of cholesterol with them are called low density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) and they are very harmful to your body.  Then there are lipoproteins that carry some cholesterol but mostly protein and they are called high density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C) and this type of cholesterol is very beneficial.  .

Bad vs. Good Cholesterol. So what makes Bad cholesterol so bad??  Well, the liver usually regulates your cholesterol levels.  It is the warden of cholesterol.  However, if you are a steady fast-food eater, your LDL-C levels might be so high that the liver doesn’t even stand a chance at controlling them.  Once the liver loses control of LDL-C, where does it go?  YOUR BLOOD VESSELS! Now, LDL-C is running wild in your blood vessels and eventually sticks onto the walls and over time may cause plaques that narrow the arterial opening and cause a blockage that might lead to heart attacks or stroke. As for HDL-C, it is considered the “angelic” or “good” cholesterol that picks up the cholesterol that should not be in the vessels and brings it back to the liver to be eliminated from the body.  So in order words, it protects your blood vessels from accumulating fatty plaques leading to atherosclerosis.  The LDL: HDL cholesterol ratio is used as a good predictive parameter to your risk at developing coronary heart disease.  If your blood is high in LDL, you’re mostly likely lacking in HDL.

So what if I eat myself into getting Atherosclerosis?  Atherosclerosis can lead to many debilitating diseases and targets various regions of the circulation.  It can affect your heart leading to a heart attack.  It can affect the arteries supplying your nervous system, leading to stroke.  It can eventually rupture your aorta or other large arteries.  It can affect your peripheral circulation in your limbs, and may lead to gangrene and eventually limb amputation.  It can even affect the circulation to your kidneys!

So what can I do to protect myself from developing Atherosclerosis? As atherosclerosis is a silent killer, no one can really know what damage is caused by years of eating poorly except by using Doppler ultrasound techniques and cardiac stress testing with nuclear imaging.  Most people find out when it’s too late.  However, you can control your progress or prevent it all-together by reversing your eating habits.  I know, it is difficult to cut out fat from your diet and really, you should not cut out fat from your diet but be fat-wise.  What do I mean by being fat-wise??  Eat GOOD fat.   High saturated fats are definitely not good and exacerbate the process of atherosclerosis.  Switch to unsaturated fats like Golden OLIVE Eleni® olive oil . A high ratio of unsaturated fatty acids: saturated acids is considered to be beneficial in preventing coronary heart disease.  A dietary intake of olive oil will also increase your HDL:LDL ratio, decreasing the bad cholesterol menace in your blood vessels and your risk of developing atherosclerosis.

But it is so hard to part with butter… You can slowly make changes to your diet to be heart healthy.  You deserve it, and so does the future of your arteries.  So instead of using butter on your popcorn, drizzle a little Eleni Golden olive oil instead.  Instead of frying up that egg in lard, use a little Eleni Golden olive oil instead.  Slowly make the change to a healthier lifestyle through your diet, and slowly change the person you are on the inside by changing the type of fat you put into it.

What else can I do to avoid Atherosclerosis? Among dietary changes away from saturated fatty foods (such as: meat fat, cheese, cream, lard, ghee, milk fat, butter, lard, cottonseed oil, coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil) and to healthier unsaturated fatty foods (olive oil, peanut oil, avocados, etc). You can also incorporate exercise into your lifestyle as it will keep your arteries flexible and increase the formation of new vessels to supply your muscles.  Stop smoking.  And the last possible resource of course is drug therapy if you cannot manage your cholesterol levels.

Say NO to bad fat. Indulge now and again, but try to keep unsaturated fats as the mainstay in your diet.  It is terrible to see people in the hospital with kidney failure, heart failure, and immobility due to stroke; when they had all the power to prevent it just by thinking before eating.


References:

Botham Kathleen M, Mayes Peter A, "Chapter 26. Cholesterol Synthesis, Transport, & Excretion" (Chapter). Murray RK, Bender DA, Botham KM, Kennelly PJ, Rodwell VW, Weil PA: Harper's Illustrated Biochemistry, 28e: http://www.accessmedicine.com/content.aspx?aID=5227528

Botham Kathleen M, Mayes Peter A, "Chapter 23. Biosynthesis of Fatty Acids & Eicosanoids" (Chapter). Murray RK, Bender DA, Botham KM, Kennelly PJ, Rodwell VW, Weil PA: Harper's Illustrated Biochemistry, 28e: http://www.accessmedicine.com/content.aspx?aID=5227280

Wolff K, Johnson RA, "Section 16. Skin Signs of Vascular Insufficiency" (Chapter). Wolff K, Johnson RA: Fitzpatrick's Color Atlas & Synopsis of Clinical Dermatology, 6e: http://www.accessmedicine.com/content.aspx?aID=5189520

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