You can improve clogged, narrow arteries through diet, exercise, and stress management. Quitting smoking, if you smoke, can also help “unclog” arteries. Sometimes procedures may be necessary.

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When fatty deposits of plaque build up in your arteries, they may become blocked or “clogged.” But you can take steps to help clear existing buildup and prevent blocked arteries from getting worse.

The arteries are types of blood vessels. They are a major component of your circulatory system, an intricate network that also includes capillaries and veins. These tubes move oxygen-containing blood through your body, helping fuel all your body’s functions. As long as those blood vessels are clear and open, blood can flow freely.

Sometimes plaques build up inside your blood vessels. Plaques consist of cholesterol and fatty substances, calcium, fibrin, and cell waste.

Atherosclerosis

Your arteries may narrow due to the formation of these plaques. This condition is known as atherosclerosis. It develops gradually and often worsens with age, according to the American Heart Association.

As the plaques grow, they may block the blood flow in an artery.

Depending on the severity and location of plaque buildup, a doctor may recommend a procedure or surgery to remove plaque from your arteries or to bypass the clogged artery entirely. A procedure may be necessary to prevent complications.

Read on to learn how you can achieve this with the help of dietary modifications, certain lifestyle changes, and more.

You can “unclog” your arteries with natural methods, including diet, exercise, and stress management. Quitting smoking, if you smoke, can also help reverse plaque.

According to a 2020 commentary and review of earlier studies, researchers noted that reversing atherosclerosis is only achievable if all major risk factors are controlled. These include:

Research from 2019 notes that a low fat, plant-based diet can effectively reverse coronary artery disease. Coronary artery disease is a common complication associated with clogged arteries.

Additionally, a 2019 study pointed out that multiple studies have shown a reduced risk of coronary artery disease in people who consume a whole-food, plant-based diet.

This includes eating a diet that consists of:

  • grains
  • legumes
  • vegetables
  • fruits
  • nuts
  • seeds

But the study’s authors found that much of that previous research was performed on homogeneous groups, which means that participants may not have represented diverse groups. Their own research suggests that a plant-based diet can help improve several risk factors for coronary artery disease and may reduce the risk for this disease.

You can take steps to reduce plaques by losing weight, exercising more, or eating fewer foods high in saturated fat.

In some cases, doctors may also prescribe medications to lower cholesterol. According to a 2020 study, researchers noted stabilization of existing plaques in people with atherosclerosis and stable angina within 30 days of taking medications for high cholesterol. Shrinking of plaques was seen 1 to 2 years later.

Your eating plan is a key component of maintaining heart health throughout your life, including preventing plaques from developing in your arteries. A plant-based, heart-healthy diet may help treat existing plaques while preventing others from forming.

The focus should be on eating fewer foods that contain saturated fats, such as meats and other animal products, while increasing your intake of plant-based foods.

One possible option is the dietary approach to stop hypertension (DASH) eating plan, which emphasizes eating vegetables, fruits, and whole grains while limiting saturated fat, sugar, and salt.

Adopting a plant-based diet may also help, according to 2019 research. Eating a plant-based diet involves limiting or completely removing animal products from your diet, including:

  • meat
  • poultry
  • dairy products
  • fish
  • eggs

Additionally, plant-based fats, such as olive oil, may help reduce your risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.

While age is considered a risk factor for blocked arteries, unhealthy lifestyle habits may increase your risk of arterial clogging at a younger age.

For example, atherosclerosis is most common in your 60s and 70s. Research also suggests that having elevated cholesterol as a younger adult increases your risk for developing cardiovascular disease later in life.

For most people, arteries may start clogging during childhood, with plaque buildup worsening as they get older. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), these risk factors increase in males after age 45 and in females after age 55.

Heart health tips

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet.
  • Make exercise a part of your routine. Aim for at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous exercise, or a combination of both.
  • Avoid smoking. If you smoke, talk about smoking cessation programs with a doctor.
  • Limit your alcohol consumption. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends 2 or fewer drinks per day for males or 1 drink per day or fewer for females.

Direct your efforts toward decreasing your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels and increasing your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels. Your LDL level is a measure of the “bad” cholesterol that’s in your blood.

When you have a lot of LDL, the excess cholesterol floats through your body and may stick to your arterial walls. HDL, the “good” cholesterol, helps whisk away the LDL cells and stops plaques from forming.

Here are some additional tips that may help you prevent plaque buildup.

Eat a heart-healthy diet

Diet can play a big role in improving your heart health and reducing your risk for a buildup of plaque. It’s never too late to eat a healthier diet. You can get started with the following changes:

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables: Eat a variety to help gain a diverse supply of nutrients.
  • Add more good fats to your diet: Good fats are also called unsaturated fats. Foods like olives, nuts, avocados, and fish contain unsaturated fats.
  • Cut sources of saturated fat: Examples of foods to cut include fatty meats and dairy products. Choose lean cuts of meat, and try eating more plant-based meals.
  • Eliminate artificial sources of trans fats: Artificial trans fats are often high in processed, packaged foods like cookies and snack cakes. Be sure to check the labels.
  • Increase your fiber intake: Soluble fiber helps lower your LDL. You can find soluble fiber in foods like vegetables, lentils, beans, and oats.
  • Focus on whole grains: This includes whole-grain, minimally processed bread, pasta, and rice.
  • Cut back on sugar and salt: Vitamins and minerals accompany the sugar found naturally in fruit. But the sugar in processed foods like cookies, ice cream, and sugar-sweetened beverages doesn’t have nutritional value. Too much added sugar can negatively impact your health. Avoid adding extra salt to your meals, and choose fresh herbs or spices instead.
  • Reduce your intake of highly processed foods: Processed foods can include boxed and frozen items and fast food. Instead, eat unprocessed or minimally processed foods.

Move more

Exercise can improve your cardiovascular health and help prevent cardiac issues.

Slowly build up your routine and your stamina. Aim to get at least 150 minutes of exercise at a moderate intensity per week. This may include brisk walks.

The CDC also recommends 2 days per week of muscle-strengthening activities that target all muscle groups. Muscle-strengthening activities may include yoga or using exercise bands, weight machines, or handheld weights.

It’s important to always talk with a doctor before starting a new exercise routine. A doctor can help determine if the types and intensity of your chosen activities are right for you. Some types of exercise may be physically unsafe if you have certain chronic conditions.

Maintain a moderate weight

When you eat better and move more, the natural result might be that you lose weight. Carrying extra weight increases your LDL cholesterol. That increases your risk for plaque buildup.

Reducing your body weight by 3% to 5% can benefit your health, including your cholesterol.

Quit smoking and reduce alcohol intake, if you smoke or drink alcohol

Smoking contributes to the development of atherosclerosis, making it more likely that plaques will form and increasing their overall growth rate. Smoking also affects the main artery in your body (the aorta).

The day you quit smoking, your health will start to rebound. Quitting smoking may help raise your HDL levels, too. Talk with a doctor if you need help quitting smoking. They can recommend smoking cessation programs and other resources.

Too much alcohol can also affect your heart. The NHLBI recommends limiting your alcohol intake to no more than 1 drink per day for females and 2 drinks per day for males. The American Heart Association also recommends limited or preferably no alcohol intake.

Alcohol can also negatively affect your cholesterol levels.

Manage stress

Your emotional health can directly impact your physical health, so it’s important to manage stress as best as you can. Take time to relax each day, and seek help from a therapist if you need help coping with issues you might face in your everyday life.

Take prescribed medication

If lifestyle changes aren’t enough, a doctor may prescribe medication to help lower your LDL cholesterol and prevent plaques. These are designed for use alongside other heart-healthy measures, such as diet and exercise.

Statin medications are a common option. Doctors prescribe them for adults at a higher risk of developing a stroke or coronary artery disease. Other cholesterol-lowering medications may include:

  • PCSK9 inhibitors
  • bempedoic acid (Nexletol)
  • ezetimibe (Zetia)

Be sure to take your cholesterol medication as prescribed. It is important to continue a heart-healthy diet and regular physical activity even if you’re taking a cholesterol-lowering medication.

Many medications may also work better alongside exercise and a heart-healthy diet.

If you were diagnosed with arterial blockages, now is the time to reverse plaque and prevent additional buildup. You can “unclog” arteries through the above lifestyle changes, such as eating a heart-healthy diet, exercising, and quitting smoking, if you smoke. You may be able to do a lot to stop the condition from getting worse.

Some procedures and interventions can also remove plaque or strengthen arteries.

If a doctor discovers that one or more of your arteries has a more severe blockage, the above lifestyle changes may not be enough. Instead, a doctor may recommend procedures or surgery to remove plaque or bypass the blockages. This may help prevent possible complications.

A doctor may perform a percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI). This procedure opens narrowed or blocked coronary arteries. They may leave behind a tiny metal structure called a stent that helps support the artery and increase blood flow.

Bypass surgery may be recommended instead, depending on the location of the blocked artery and if the blockage is severe. During this procedure, a surgeon removes arteries from other parts of your body and replaces the blocked artery.

It’s important to work with a doctor to create a treatment plan if you have clogged arteries. If blockages remain untreated, you could experience serious health complications. Depending on the location and severity of the blocked artery, some of the possible complications can include:

  • Angina: This type of chest pain develops when blocked arteries reduce blood flow to your heart.
  • Coronary artery disease: This involves the larger coronary arteries on the surface of your heart.
  • Coronary microvascular disease: This affects the tiny arteries in the heart muscle.
  • Heart attack: A heart attack happens when a completely blocked artery prevents blood flow to your heart.
  • Carotid artery disease: This describes blocked arteries in your neck responsible for blood flow to your brain.
  • Stroke: A stroke can happen when a blocked artery cuts off blood flow to your brain or when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures.
  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD): PAD occurs when plaque develops within the arteries of your lower extremities, such as your legs.
  • Chronic kidney disease: This refers to permanent kidney damage that results in a loss of kidney function.

Plaque buildup in your arteries may cause them to become clogged. While diet and lifestyle are major contributors, your risk of atherosclerosis may also increase with age.

Still, adopting a heart-heathy diet and regular exercise routine and taking certain medications may help reduce plaques and prevent them from getting worse. These healthy lifestyle changes are also important if you have a procedure to remove plaques or bypass a heavily clogged artery.

Once you’ve had a clog removed or reduced, it’s important to do everything you can to prevent more plaque buildup so you can lead a longer, healthier life. Talk with a doctor about the next steps that are most important for your situation.

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