Atherosclerosis: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Atherosclerosis has several risk factors for its development. These include a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet and the consumption of toxic substances such as tobacco and alcohol.
Atherosclerosis: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment
Saúl Sánchez

Written and verified by el nutricionista Saúl Sánchez.

Last update: 01 April, 2023

Atherosclerosis is one of the most feared health problems today. It affects the cardiovascular system and is capable of putting lives at risk, conditioning the blood flow that reaches the main vital organs. For this reason, we’re going to explain what it consists of.

It’s one of the conditions most closely linked to diet. The quality of the nutrients that we introduce into the body can determine the efficiency of the cardiovascular system. A diet based on ultra-processed products, for example, increases the risk of clogging blood vessels.

What does it consist of?

This condition is nothing more than a clogging of the blood vessels, generally of the arteries, caused by an accumulation of plasma lipids that make up the atheromatous plaque. This generates a hardening of the endothelial walls and a reduction in diameter. Likewise, the blood flow that is capable of passing through them is conditioned.

It must be taken into account that the blood vessels allow the arrival of blood to all our body’s cells. The oxygen and nutrients necessary to ensure that the metabolic and physiological reactions take place are dissolved in this liquid.

In the event of a certain tissue not getting a correct blood supply, little by little it can deteriorate, until it ends in necrosis. At this point, it must be taken into account that the suppression of the blood supply to a vital organ can cause death.

Doctor checks patient with atherosclerosis.
This disease is silent and the symptoms aren’t easily detected.

Why does atherosclerosis occur?

Regarding the risk factors for atherosclerosis, there’s considerable disagreement in the scientific community. For many years this problem was blamed on an increase in plasma cholesterol values.

Poor diet was considered the main cause. However, there’s currently doubt as to whether there’s a direct relationship between the lipid profile and the development of the disease, according to a study published in the journal Clinical Science.

Experts don’t directly relate the risk of atherosclerosis to total cholesterol and not even to HDL or LDL fractions. Instead, an inflammatory and oxidative process is hypothesized to affect a small population of the LDL lipoprotein, known as oxidized VLDL.

Eating a diet low in antioxidants and high in inflammatory substances could increase the rate of oxidation of blood lipoproteins. This situation increases the risk of the formation of atheromatous plaques. This is what the latest research says.

In any case, the HDL fraction is still considered protective, being capable of transporting lipids to the liver for metabolism or elimination, thus performing a cleaning function. It’s accepted that the lipid profile is determined, to a large extent, by a genetic component, so that the ability to act on it through diet is limited.

Triglycerides and atherosclerosis

Although the relationship between cholesterol and atherosclerosis still raises doubts, the association between this disease and blood triglycerides seems to be clearer. The genetic influence in this case is minor, with dietary control being a clear protagonist when it comes to varying the concentration of these lipids in the serum.

Apparently, and according to the most recent studies, having a high level of triglycerides in the plasma is associated with a greater risk of developing atherosclerotic plaques, representing a risk to cardiovascular health. To avoid this situation, it’s necessary to correct certain lifestyle habits.

Eating fewer ultra-processed foods is an effective strategy, as well as the practice of physical exercise on a daily basis. A multi-pronged approach is the most effective way to control risk.


One of the main problems with atherosclerosis is that it’s a silent disease. It may not show any symptoms until it’s already highly developed, at which time the risk of a heart attack or cerebrovascular problems skyrockets.

Perhaps, in active people, it’s a little more evident, as the pathology conditions the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the tissues. This generates a feeling of early tiredness and reduced physical efficiency. In any case, it’s a rare problem in the active population.

Typically, it develops silently in older, overweight, and sedentary people. It’s possible that they won’t appreciate the progressive increase in fatigue and don’t experience any warning symptoms.

Treatment of atherosclerosis

Until a few years ago, the treatment of atherosclerosis was clear. Lipid-lowering drugs were prescribed, along with a dietary pattern devoid of lipids and with a high carbohydrate content.

However, these days this modus operandi has taken a 180-degree turn. In the first place, the effect of these drugs in a high percentage of individuals with cardiovascular risk factors is doubtful.

As far as food is concerned, it has been possible to demonstrate that the intake of saturated or unsaturated fatty acids doesn’t only have a negative impact on the lipid profile, but also reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular pathologies. However, what does generate a negative impact on the functioning of this system is the consumption of trans fatty acids.

Effective dietary supplements

Despite the fact that in some cases pharmacological management and even surgical intervention is necessary, many cardiovascular risk situations can be improved with an adequate approach to lifestyle habits. From the dietary point of view, it’s worth noting the need to reduce the intake of simple sugars, carbohydrates in general, additives, and trans fatty acids.

At the same time, it’s a good step to increase the intake of saturated and unsaturated lipids, paying special attention to those of the omega-3 series for their anti-inflammatory properties.

Supplementation with certain nutrients also seems to be protective against the development of this type of pathology. Both omega-3 and vitamin D supplements can reduce the risk of cardiovascular events.

They modulate inflammation and reduce the rate of oxidation of the VLDL lipoprotein. In this sense, the contribution of dietary antioxidants through foods of plant origin is also a great help.

Lipid-lowering drugs taken to lower cholesterol.
Beyond drugs, lifestyle is decisive in the appearance of atheromatous plaques.

The importance of physical activity

The function of physical activity mustn’t be neglected, and it’s especially important to practice it on a regular basis. Exercise has always been linked to better health. Exercise can exert antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity in the medium term.

Because of this, a combination of strength exercises with resistance work is recommended. This will reduce subcutaneous and visceral adipose tissue, while increasing the production of lean mass. On the other hand, it stimulates the functioning of the heart.

Atherosclerosis: a pathology determined by lifestyle habits

There’s no clear consensus on the cause of atherosclerosis, on the risk factors, and on the importance of the lipid profile when determining the development of the pathology. However, it is clear that lifestyle habits directly influence the functioning of the cardiovascular system.

A diet based on the consumption of fresh foods, which limits ultra-processed foods, can generate a protective impact on this class of diseases. At the same time, it’s worth noting the need for daily physical activity.

Atherosclerosis is a silent disease with no early symptoms. Therefore, going to a nutrition professional to adjust the diet and assess the inclusion of a supplement can be a differential factor in order to maximize prevention.

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