By Jade Beutler, R.R.T., R.C.P.
Most cardiovascular diseases are the result of atherosclerosis or hardening of the artery walls due to build up of plaque containing cholesterol, fatty material, and cellular debris. For example, "heart disease" usually refers to a restriction or blockage of the coronary arteries which supply the heart with oxygen and nutrients. If the blood flow through these arteries is severely blocked because of the build up of cholesterol-containing plaque, severe damage or death to the heart muscle may occur; this results in what is commonly known as a heart attack.
Atherosclerosis and its complications are the major causes of death in the United States and have reached epidemic proportions throughout the Western world. Heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular diseases related to atherosclerosis are responsible for roughly 43% of all deaths in the U.S.A.
Atherosclerosis is a degenerative condition of the arteries characterized by accumulation of lipids (mainly cholesterol, usually complexed to proteins, and cholesterol esters) within the artery. The atherosclerotic plaque, or atheroma, represents the endpoint of a complex, insidious process. Although any artery may be affected, the aorta, coronary and arteries supplying the brain are frequently involved.
The Role of Cholesterol in Atherosclerosis
The first step in the prevention and treatment of heart disease and strokes is the reduction of blood cholesterol levels. The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that elevated cholesterol levels are deadly. However, not all cholesterol is bad; it serves many vital functions in the body including the manufacture of sex hormones and bile acids. Without cholesterol many body processes would not function properly. Cholesterol is transported in the blood by molecules known as lipoproteins.
Cholesterol bound to low density lipoprotein (LDL) is often referred to as the bad cholesterol while cholesterol bound to high density lipoprotein (HDL) is referred to as the good cholesterol. LDL cholesterol increases the risk for heart disease, strokes, and high blood pressure while HDL cholesterol actually protects against heart disease. LDL transports cholesterol to the tissues. HDL, on the other hand, transports cholesterol to the liver for metabolism and excretion from the body. Therefore the LDL-to-HDL ratio (also referred to as the cardiac risk factor ratio) largely determines whether cholesterol is being deposited into tissues or broken down and excreted. The risk for heart disease can be reduced dramatically by lowering LDL cholesterol while simultaneously raising HDL cholesterol levels. Research has shown that for every 1% drop in the LDL cholesterol level, the risk for a heart attack drops by 2%. Conversely, for every 1% increase in HDL levels the risk for a heart attack drops 3 to 4%.
In addition to keeping an eye on your cholesterol level, it is also important to keep the level of triglycerides in the proper range. Here are the recommended levels of blood cholesterol and triglycerides:
• Total cholesterol - less than 200 mg/dl
• LDL cholesterol - less than 130 mg/dl
• HDL cholesterol - greater than 35 mg/dl
• LDL to HDL ratio - less than 4.5
• Triglycerides - 50 to 150 mg/dl
Omega-3 Oils and Cholesterol
Scientific studies have shown normalization of blood lipids (fats) in hyper-lipidemic individuals when supplemented with Omega-3 fatty acids. Decreases in harmful LDL cholesterol, increases in favorable HDL cholesterol, and reduction of triglyceride levels have been demonstrated.
Omega-3 fatty acids have the uncanny ability to break down cholesterol in the lining of blood vessels, as well as serving as a solvent for saturated fats in the diet. The end result is less cholesterol in the body and blood stream, and a reduced likelihood of cholesterol/heart disease complications in the future.
Omega-3 Oils and Blood Pressure
Each time the heart beats it sends blood coursing through the arteries. The peak reading of the pressure exerted by this contraction is the systolic pressure. Between beats the heart relaxes and blood pressure drops. The very lowest reading is referred to as the diastolic pressure. A normal blood pressure reading for an adult is:
• 120 (systolic) / 80 (diastolic)
High blood pressure, or hypertension, refers to a reading of greater than 140/90. An elevated blood pressure is one of the major risk factors for a heart attack or stroke. Since heart disease and strokes account for over 43% of all deaths in the U.S., it is very important to keep the blood pressure in the normal range. Over 60 million Americans have high blood pressure. Again, dietary factors appear to be the primary reason.
Besides attaining ideal body weight, perhaps the most important dietary recommendation is to increase the consumption of plant foods in the diet. A primarily vegetarian diet typically contains more potassium, complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, fiber, calcium, magnesium, vitamin C and less saturated fat and refined carbohydrates, all of which have a favorable influence on blood pressure.
Increasing the intake of Omega-3 fatty acids can also lower blood pressure. Over 60 doubleblind studies have demonstrated that either fish oil supplements or flaxseed oil are very effective in lowering blood pressure. Along with reducing the intake of saturated fat, one tablespoon per day of flaxseed oil should drop both the systolic and diastolic readings by up to 9 mm Hg. One study found that for every absolute 1% increase in body alpha-linolenic acid content (the Omega-3 found in flax oil), there was a decrease of 5 mm Hg in the systolic, diastolic, and mean blood pressure.
The beneficial effects of Omega-3 oils in protecting as well as treating cardiovascular disease are quite obvious. Omega-3 oils impact numerous factors linked to heart attacks and strokes. They lower LDL-cholesterol levels and triglycerides, inhibit excessive platelet aggregation, lower fibrinogen levels, and lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure in individuals with high blood pressure. Flaxseed oil offers a beneficial method for increasing the intake of Omega-3 oils in the diet.