How Does Gunk Build Up in My Arteries?
Forget the plumbing analogies: The process is more complicated than the gradual accumulation of plaque in your pipes. For starters, the build-up doesn’t occur in your arteries per se; it happens inside the artery walls, says Robert Superko MD, co-founder of the Berkeley HeartLab and the author of Before the Heart Attacks. “Your artery walls are semi-permeable and oxidised LDL particles are infiltrating all the time. They drop off cholesterol that’s required for your cells to function—but sometimes they can deposit too much.” It doesn’t take long to advance through the steps shown above—that is, from excess LDL to a pile of plaque and, eventually, a heart attack.
The walls weaken
Microscopic damage to your artery wall allows too many oxidised LDL particles to worm their way in and dump their cholesterol payload.
Avoid the two ‘s’s: sodium and smoke. High blood pressure creates turbulence inside your arteries, causing the walls to take a pounding. Smoke contains carbon monoxide, another wall weakener.
Small amounts of LDL cholesterol inside your artery walls are removed by HDL particles. If the HDL can’t keep up, the LDL causes your arteries to narrow and stiffen.
Your goal: an LDL level below 130 milligrammes per decilitre, and an HDL level above 50 mg/dl.
White blood cells enter your artery wall to gobble up excess cholesterol. But they become engorged and turn into foam cells. This triggers inflamation, causing more repair cells to show up, creating more plaque.
Ask your doctor if your cholesterol levels and other risk factors warrant taking a statin or undergoing a coronary calcification test.
The cover-up begins
A cap forms over your damaged artery wall. If the cap ruptures, the plaque may ooze out and trigger the formation of a blood clot, which could block your artery. Result: heart attack.
If you experience sudden faintness, nausea, or sweating, and it’s accompanied by chest pain (especially if the pain radiates to your back, jaw, or either arm), call 999.
All images from Stockexchange.