Treatment Options for Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis occurs when fat-containing deposits called plaque form in your arteries, causing them to harden and narrow.

This can reduce blood flow to different areas of your body, depending on which arteries are affected. (1)

Treatment for atherosclerosis is often critical when it affects the arteries leading to your heart, a condition known as coronary artery disease (CAD).

But regardless of its location or severity, your doctor is likely to recommend some type of treatment for your atherosclerosis to prevent it from getting worse and causing complications — many of which can be severe, such as a heart attack or stroke.

There are many proven approaches for treating atherosclerosis, including lifestyle modifications, prescription drugs, and surgical procedures. There are also some less proven — but possibly still effective — alternative remedies. (2)

The specific treatments your doctor recommends will depend on your age and overall health, the extent and severity of your disease, how well you tolerate certain treatments, and your personal preferences. (3)

Lifestyle Changes for Atherosclerosis

Certain lifestyle changes can slow or even reverse the progression of atherosclerosis, and are generally the first-line treatment for people diagnosed with the condition.

Your doctor may recommend one or more of the following steps:

Follow a heart-healthy diet. You can help control risk factors for atherosclerosis and heart disease — such as your weight, blood pressure, and blood cholesterol and glucose levels — by focusing on eating certain foods while avoiding others.

A heart-healthy diet is widely understood to be high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in refined carbohydrates, saturated and trans fats, and sodium.

Practical tips include switching from white to whole-grain bread, eating fruits and vegetables instead of chips or crackers as snacks, using olive oil instead of solid fats like butter, and reducing sugar and sugar substitutes as much as possible. (1,2)

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Stop smoking. Smoking — or using tobacco in another form — damages your arteries. If you’re a smoker, quitting is the single most effective way to stop your atherosclerosis from getting worse and reduce your risk of complications, according to the Mayo Clinic. (2)

Get enough exercise. Exercising can help your circulation and let your body use oxygen more efficiently, which can help limit the damage caused by reduced blood flow from atherosclerosis.

You should try to get 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each week, or 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise is any physical activity that raises your heart and breathing rates.

While exercising in intervals of at least 30 minutes is ideal, you can break up your activity into segments as short as 10 minutes and still get substantial benefits. (1,2)

Aim for a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, losing just 5 to 10 pounds (2.3 to 4.5 kilograms) can lower your risk for high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels — both factors that can contribute to atherosclerosis. (2)

In adults, a healthy body weight is usually defined as a body mass index (BMI) — a measurement based on your height and weight — between 18.5 and 24.9.

You should also keep tabs on your waist circumference, which may be considered unhealthy if it’s above 35 inches (88.9 centimeters) in women or 40 inches (101.6 centimeters) in men. (1)

Try to manage stress. Techniques like guided relaxation, deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can help you cope with stress in a healthy way.

You may also find relief from stress through exercise, talking with friends and family, or visiting a mental health professional. (1,2)

Medication for Atherosclerosis

Several drugs have been shown to slow or reverse the progression of atherosclerosis, including ones in the following categories:

Cholesterol Medication Drugs known as statins can reduce your LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or "bad") cholesterol, which can help stop or even reverse the buildup of plaque in your arteries.

In addition to regulating your cholesterol, statins can help stabilize the lining of your heart arteries and prevent atherosclerosis.

Anti-Platelet Medication These drugs, which include aspirin, can reduce the risk of blood clots forming in your arteries. (2)

For this reason, taking daily low-dose aspirin at your doctor’s recommendation can reduce the risk of a heart attack in people with coronary artery disease. (4)

Beta-Blockers Beta-blockers are widely used to treat CAD. They lower your heart rate and relax your blood vessels, which in turn lowers your blood pressure — along with your risk of a heart attack and certain heart rhythm problems.

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Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme (ACE) Inhibitors ACE inhibitors may help slow the progression of atherosclerosis by lowering your blood pressure and relaxing your blood vessels. They also reduce your risk of having multiple heart attacks.

Calcium Channel Blockers These drugs lower your blood pressure and relax your blood vessels. Calcium channel blockers are also sometimes used to treat angina (chest pain).

Diuretics (Water Pills) Diuretics help lower your blood pressure by reducing fluid retention throughout your body.

Other Drugs Your doctor may prescribe medication to control specific risk factors for atherosclerosis — like diabetes — or symptoms of atherosclerosis, like leg pain during exercise. (2)

Surgical Treatments for Atherosclerosis

If you have severe atherosclerosis or your condition doesn’t respond adequately to medication, you may be a candidate for surgery.

Surgical procedures used to treat atherosclerosis include:

Angioplasty In angioplasty, a surgeon inserts a narrow tube into the blocked or narrowed artery and passes a second tube containing a deflated balloon tip through it.

The balloon is then inflated, which pushes the blockage open against your artery walls. A mesh tube (stent) is then often placed in the artery to keep it open.

Endarterectomy This procedure involves surgically removing plaque deposits from the walls of a narrowed artery. It’s often performed on the carotid arteries (in your neck).

Bypass Grafting In this procedure, a surgeon bypasses the blocked artery by grafting a blood vessel from another part of your body, or a tube made of synthetic fabric, around the blockage. (1,2)

Alternative Therapies for Atherosclerosis

There’s some evidence that certain foods and dietary supplements may help reduce high LDL cholesterol and blood pressure — two risk factors for atherosclerosis.

Talk to your doctor before starting any dietary supplements. Some treatments may be ineffective or even harmful to your health, as they can interact with prescription medication and cause dangerous side effects.

Possibly beneficial foods and dietary supplements include:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
  • Barley
  • Beta-sitosterol
  • Calcium
  • Cocoa
  • Cod liver oil
  • Coenzyme Q10
  • Fish oil
  • Folic acid
  • Garlic
  • Oat bran
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Psyllium
  • Sitostanol
  • Tea (black or green)
  • Vitamin C

Some of these products are widely available as stand-alone supplements, while others are ingredients in foods or supplement formulas. (2)

Additional reporting by Quinn Phillips.

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