The term “vascular” refers to anything related to the blood vessels of the circulatory system.
When it comes to cardiovascular health, poor artery (vascular) function is one of the least recognized risk factors.
Among other critical things, the inner lining of blood vessels – called the endothelium – controls the balance between “vasodilating” (artery opening) and “vasoconstricting” (artery narrowing) substances produced by (or acting on) the endothelium.
Our arteries’ endothelial cells exert influence over platelet adhesion (the relative “stickiness” of blood), inflammation in the arteries, and more.
Unsurprisingly, the condition known as “endothelial dysfunction” promotes the development of atherosclerosis, which is a defining feature of cardiovascular disease.
Endothelial dysfunction – which begins long before symptoms of cardiovascular disease appear – promotes atherosclerosis by increasing blood stickiness and clotting, and by generating pro-inflammatory messenger chemicals and free radicals from artery linings.
This is why the presence of substantial endothelial dysfunction reliably predicts a decline in cardiovascular health and adverse future events … including stroke and heart attacks.
Super foods help artery health; Caffeine may stiffen vessels
While no food or nutrient is a magic bullet that ensures great artery health, there’s little doubt that omega-3s, and the polyphenols and other “antioxidants” in whole plant foods (including soy isoflavones), can be arterial allies.
In all cases, these food factors appear to exert “nutrigenomic” effects over our working genes … beneficial influences that tend to moderate inflammation and reduce excessive blood stickiness.
We should note that some research suggests caffeine is somewhat artery-stiffening, at least in a transitory sense. However, tea and coffee, the chemical’s most popular delivery vehicles, may be a wash, since they’re rich in polyphenols, which generally exert endothelium-enhancing effects.
These are some of the articles we’ve published about research in this realm:
Diet seen as a key factor in artery health
The standard American diet features high levels of pro-inflammatory sugars and starches and low levels of “nutrigenomic” whole food factors proven to exert beneficial influences.
(See “High-Carb Foods Harm Hearts; Low-Carb “Green” Diet Helps” and “Fructose Called Most Dangerous Sugar.”)
This sorry state of dietary affairs sets the stage for endothelial dysfunction and consequent cardiovascular disease.
No single food or nutrient can fully prevent or reverse endothelial dysfunction caused by a poor overall diet.
But it’s become increasingly clear that common “super foods” – such as fish, greens, beans, cocoa, berries, and extra virgin olive oil – are beneficial in part because they support endothelial health.
We’ve reported a number of studies that link omega-3s and the “antioxidants” in whole, unrefined plant foods to enhanced endothelial health and artery function.
To review some of that research, see the articles listed in our sidebar, “Super foods seen to help artery health”.
And a new evidence review adds luster to the artery-health reputation that fish-type omega-3s have begun to earn.
Evidence review finds omega-3s reduce artery stiffness
Researchers from Australia’s NICM Centre for Study of Natural Medicines and Neurocognition conducted a review of the scientific literature, and concluded that omega-3 fatty acids offer a “scientifically supported means of reducing arterial stiffness”.
According to their findings, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, the findings of 10 clinical trials showed that omega-3 fatty acids improve two standard measures of the stiffness of arteries, called “pulse wave velocity” and “arterial compliance”.
As they wrote, “Reduction in arterial stiffness by n-3 may account for some of its purported cardioprotective effects.” (Pase MP et al. Br J Nutr, 2011)
Importantly, the results were not influenced by changes in blood pressure, heart rate, or BMI.
To date, omega-3 fatty acids from fish (EPA and DHA) have been linked to improvements in blood fat/cholesterol profiles, reductions in excessive blood stickiness, lower blood pressure, stable heart rhythms, and improved endothelial and artery function.
Led by Matthew Pase, the Aussie team of reviewers conducted the first “meta-analysis” designed to examine the effects of omega-3 fish oil supplements on the stiffness of arteries.
The medical literature yielded ten randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials … four that measured the participants’ pulse wave velocity (PWV) and six that measured participants’ arterial compliance.
The Aussies’ finding was clear: “Meta-analysis revealed that omega-3 was statistically significant in effectively improving both PWV and arterial compliance.” (Pase MP et al. Br J Nutr, 2011)
How much omega-3 fat is needed to protect artery performance?
The authors of an evidence review published in May of 2011 concluded that people need to take at least 250mg of omega-3s daily to reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death and other heart conditions.
(See “Omega-3 Heart News, Part I.”)
The authors reported that research indicates that taking at least 250mg of fish-fat omega-3s (EPA + DHA) was associated with a 35 percent reduction in the risk of sudden cardiac death.
Sudden cardiac death is usually caused by erratic heart rhythms, and it accounts for about half of all heart-related deaths, with fatal heart attacks or strokes making up most of the remainder.
In addition, this minimum daily dose was associated with a “near-significant” 17 percent reduction in the risk of “total fatal coronary events”, according to the team of researchers from academia and industry.
Papaioannou TG, Karatzi K, Karatzis E, Papamichael C, Lekakis JP. Acute effects of caffeine on arterial stiffness, wave reflections, and central aortic pressures. Am J Hypertens. 2005 Jan;18(1):129-36. Review.
Pase MP, Grima NA, Sarris J. Do long-chain n-3 fatty acids reduce arterial stiffness? A meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Br J Nutr. Published online: July 6, 2011. doi: 10.1017/S0007114511002819
Pase MP, Grima NA, Sarris J. The effects of dietary and nutrient interventions on arterial stiffness: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Feb;93(2):446-54. Epub 2010 Dec 8. Review.
Rizos EC, Agouridis AP, Elisaf MS. The effect of statin therapy on arterial stiffness by measuring pulse wave velocity: a systematic review. Curr Vasc Pharmacol. 2010 Sep;8(5):638-44. Review.
Teede HJ, McGrath BP, DeSilva L, Cehun M, Fassoulakis A, Nestel PJ. Isoflavones reduce arterial stiffness: a placebo-controlled study in men and postmenopausal women. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2003 Jun 1;23(6):1066-71. Epub 2003 Apr 24.