At birth, human arteries are smooth and elastic and the blood flows freely. In as little as a year, streaks of fat can begin to appear under the layer of cells that line the arteries. Turning into plaque, fatty deposits build up and bulge into the arterial cavity and restrict the circulation of blood. The plaque attracts cholesterol and calcium, which have a solidifying effect. Arteries become thick and lose their elasticity preventing the blood from passing through easily and allowing clots to develop.

Symptoms of atherosclerosis are not apparent until the arteries are nearly 90% blocked in diameter. If the coronary artery is narrow, chest pains result from exertion, an effect called angina; if coronary arteries become blocked, there is a sudden, severe, and persistent chest pain that can lead to heart attack. If the cerebral arteries are narrow, there is a temporary disturbance in balance, speech, vision, and the use of arms and legs, or the symptom may be a transient ischemic attack (TIA). In a blocked cerebral artery, loss in the use of limbs, speech impairment or stroke, and sometimes unconsciousness develop.

Reduction in blood flow can also cause abnormal heart rhythms that may result in sudden death. Atherosclerosis of the legs can cause intermittent claudication or leg pain in the calf while walking or a sudden pain of the femoral artery. An inherited defect that creates high levels of the amino acid homocysteine may cause atherosclerosis by increasing the rate of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol damage. Treatment involves the administration of vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid. If levels are not reduced, adding 6 g of betaine (not HCl) may be efficacious.

Factors that increase the risk of atherosclerosis include high blood LDL cholesterol, which becomes dangerous when oxidized by free radicals, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, and a family history of the disease. Overeating, which results in food being deposited as fat, stress, physical inactivity, and type A personalities, people who tend to be impatient and aggressive, are contributing factors. Stress results in the formation of free radicals and stimulates the release of adrenalin that can increase platelet aggregation and blood viscosity.

Autopsy studies have shown that individuals who had the clearest arteries had the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their tissues; and the most clogged arteries had the least amount of omega-3 in body tissues. The higher the proportion of omega-3 to omega-6 in the diet, the lower the risk of the disease. Omega-3s are found most abundantly in fatty fish; and omega-6s are found in margarine, vegetable oils including safflower, sunflower, and corn, and processed foods made with vegetable oils. Saturated fats, most abundant in meats and full fat dairy products, and trans-fatty acids, from margarine and processed foods using vegetable oils, promote atherosclerosis. Foods containing cholesterol do not increase serum cholesterol as much as saturated fats, nor do they increase serum cholesterol if the diet is low in fat.

Atherosclerosis can be reversed by eating a low-fat, basically vegetarian diet, exercise, and yoga, meditation, or other forms of stress reduction.

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