Your arteries are a type of blood vessel that carries blood away from your heart. Because of their job, arteries are more elastic and have thicker walls than veins and other blood vessels. When arteries become stiff, they can’t function as well which puts you at a higher risk for heart health problems. Let’s examine how to reverse arterial stiffness and protect your heart.
What is Arterial Stiffness?
Healthy arteries are elastic and able to efficiently transport blood away from your heart and throughout the rest of your body. When they’re not healthy and not working well, your cardiovascular health can be at risk.
Arterial stiffness is when there is a loss of flexibility in the arteries. This is also called arteriosclerosis and can increase your risk for hypertension, heart attack, and stroke. In fact, arterial stiffness is an independent predictor for cardiovascular events and related mortality — making it very important to address.
Atherosclerosis is a type of arteriosclerosis, in which the arteries are hardened due to accumulated fat and cholesterol — or plaque — restricting blood flow.
Arterial stiffness is an early indicator of vascular function changes and can be tested when you have other cardiovascular concerns or risk factors. It can be diagnosed using a number of testing methods.
Some examples include:
- Pulse-wave velocity
- Cardio-ankle vascular index
- Ankle-brachial index
- Pulse pressure,
- Augmentation index
- Flow-mediated dilation
- Carotid intima media thickness
- Arterial stiffness index-β
Speak to your doctor about which of these methods is best for you.
Causes of Arterial Stiffness
Some stiffening of the arteries is a natural part of the aging process. Other factors contribute as well, such as:
- Being overweight
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Drinking alcohol excessively
- Having type 2 diabetes
- Systemic inflammation
- Unmanaged stress
- High blood pressure
- Other heart-related conditions, like hypertension or atrial fibrillation
Natural Ways to Help Reverse Arterial Stiffness
If you’re wondering how to reverse arterial stiffness, the good news is that there are several natural lifestyle approaches that can help.
What we put into our bodies plays a significant role in every aspect of health. Some types of foods and nutrients particularly influence arterial stiffness. I will list a couple of foods to reduce arterial stiffness below, but please note this is not an exhaustive list.
To get a full comprehensive understanding of how much and what other foods to include in your diet to help reduce arterial stiffness, work with a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in heart disease.
Vitamin D, K, and Calcium
Vitamins D and K play important roles in the management of calcium in your body, and all three nutrients are involved in skeletal and heart health. They help to transport calcium to your bones — instead of allowing it to accumulate in the bloodstream, leading to calcification in the arteries and arterial stiffness.
Vitamin D is found in fortified dairy and plant milk, eggs, and fatty fish. Vitamin K1 is predominantly in leafy greens, like spinach, kale, and broccoli, while vitamin K2 is found in fermented foods and cheese. Find calcium in dairy products, calcium-set tofu, leafy greens, beans, almonds, and fortified plant milk.
It is important to note that high dose calcium supplements may lead to calcification in the arteries and dosages should be discussed with your full cardiac team, including your registered dietitian.
Omega-3 fats are primarily found in fatty fish and seafood, but nuts and seeds also provide some. In a 2011 meta-analysis of 10 trials, the authors concluded that omega-3s reduce arterial stiffness and that this may account for some of their cardiovascular benefits. More recent studies have confirmed that omega-3 from fatty fish can help improve arterial stiffness and endothelial dysfunction because DHA and EPA offer antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-thrombotic, and anti-arrhythmogenic activities that work directly on the mechanisms involved in artery health.
Nitric oxide (NO) is a colorless gas needed to open up your blood vessels and improve vascular function. Having increased circulation of NO also helps improve high blood pressure and arterial stiffness. NO-promoting foods include leafy greens, beets, garlic, pomegranate, citrus fruits, watermelon, and dark chocolate.
Dietary potassium helps regulate vascular calcification and arterial stiffness. Potassium deficiency has been observed to increase intracellular calcium in vascular smooth muscle cells. Not getting enough potassium has also been associated with a higher risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Good sources include spinach, potatoes, sweet potatoes, avocado, beans, and dried apricots.
While it may be enticing to get many of these nutrients through a supplement, many of these supplements can actually cause harm in supplemental form. Potassium is one of them and has been limited to 99 mg in supplemental form because above that it can lead to irregular heartbeats and cardiac arrest. Alternatively, having 3600-4700mg through diet reduces arterial stiffness by reducing tension in the arteries.
Exercise reduces blood pressure, increases circulation, and reduces stress and inflammation, all of which can help with arterial stiffness. If you don’t exercise, start small and create a routine. Exercise offers plenty of health benefits to your arteries and circulatory system — not to mention your lungs, bones, brain, muscles, and waistline.
Some ideas include dancing, swimming, running, biking, interval training, weight lifting, playing tennis or other sports, and trying out group fitness classes.
Evidence shows that passive stretching — when you maintain a stretch for a set period of time — also benefits arterial health. One example of a type of exercise that may help with arterial stiffness is restorative yoga. Daily stretching has been shown to improve blood flow to the muscles.
While some stress is normal, chronic stress can wreak havoc on your health and promote arterial stiffness. Excessive stress can increase blood pressure and have other adverse effects on heart health as well.
Some studies have shown that brief aerobic exercise can counteract some of the acute effects of mental stress on arterial stiffness and the heart. Other methods of stress management can include relaxing things you enjoy, like journaling, painting, or meditating.
Improve Your Sleep
Experts recommend that adults get between 7-8 hours of sleep per night for optimal heart health and heart attack risk reduction. Ideally, this would also have minimal interruptions, allowing for rejuvenation and repair. If this seems like a challenge, consider all of the factors at play.
One of the most common interrupters of a good night’s rest is sleep apnea. Whether you have sleep apnea or suspect that you may have it, it’s important to speak with your doctor. Having an appropriate diagnosis and management plan is the best first step toward improving your sleep.
Regardless, practicing sleep hygiene is smart. This means having an environment that promotes restful sleep patterns. For example, a bed with comfortable sheets, cozy pajamas, blackout curtains, a sound machine, or a fan. It also means having a consistent bedtime and wake routine.
Stop Smoking and Drinking
Smoking cigarettes has a significant effect on arterial stiffness by promoting inflammation and causing your blood vessels to constrict, reducing blood flow. Not to mention, it’s well-understood that smoking increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, lung disease, and miscarriage.
While the association between alcohol consumption and heart disease is mixed, there is evidence that high amounts may promote arterial stiffness and accelerated aging of arteries.
Take Control of Your Heart Health Today
If you suspect that you’re experiencing arterial stiffness or are concerned about your heart health, it’s a good idea to speak with your healthcare provider for further testing.
If you have known arterial stiffness, taking a proactive approach that includes a personalized, science based assessment and plan is imperative. A registered dietitian who specializes in heart disease management and prevention can help you design a plan to help reduce your risk of cardiovascular complications. I’m available for 1:1 counseling to help you figure out how to reverse arterial stiffness and thrive. If interested in working together, please schedule a 15 minute complimentary discovery call to discuss further.