In February, we celebrate the day of love! I am a hopeless romantic, my favorite color is red and I love chocolate, so Valentine’s Day is designed for me.
Since I’m a doctor, this holiday also causes me to contemplate what keeps our hearts healthy.
I still remember the day I sat in my cardiovascular pathology class and learned about the underlying mechanism that causes the hardening of our arteries. I remember this so vividly because there are aspects of this process that no one talks about — aspects that I consider preventable and modifiable.
Prior to this conversation, I heard one message: “When you have too much bad cholesterol floating around in your blood, it gets trapped in your arteries.” But what I learned that day is that the critical step is when the bad cholesterol (actually called LDL cholesterol) gets oxidized.
Oxidization is a biochemical word that means particles called electrons have bonded to form into free radicals. A free radical is a molecule that has unstable electrons. These free radicals are like tiny, violent monsters that run around, causing damage wherever they go.
For the LDL cholesterol to get trapped inside the blood vessel, it must first become oxidized by free radicals. Once the LDL cholesterol is oxidized, it gets eaten by a cell called a macrophage (think of macrophages like cellular Pacman). Then, the combination of the oxidized LDL and the macrophage — now called a foam cell — gets shoved into the wall of the blood vessel.
As more and more foam cells build up in the wall of the blood vessel, the harder the vessel becomes. And as more foam cells fill up the vessel wall, space for blood to move gets more and more narrow.
Whew! I know that was quite the biochemistry lesson, but here is the punch line … antioxidants help stop free radicals!
Remember, the first step in LDL cholesterol getting trapped in the blood vessel is damaged by free radicals. Luckily, nature makes molecules that stop free radicals. Antioxidants are molecules that help stabilize free radicals and literally stop the cascade of tissue damage. When LDL cholesterol is not oxidized, it goes back to the liver to be processed and removed from the body.
We get antioxidants from our diets through fruits and vegetables. In particular, dark-colored berries (the darker, the better) and vegetables like broccoli, kale, chard and collard greens. The darkly pigmented berries are nourishment for the lining of our blood vessels and packed with vitamin C. Broccoli, kale, chard and collard greens are rich in sulfur, which is essential for our master antioxidant, called glutathione. Other well-researched heart antioxidants include Pycnogenol and Co-enzyme Q10.
For my patients looking to improve their cardiovascular health, I ask them to try and eat a cup of dark-colored berries per day. Luckily, most patients find this prescription wonderful. In the summertime, it’s worth getting those gloves out and picking those blackberries! I freeze bags of them for over the winter.
Ideally, my patients consume broccoli, kale, chard, and collard greens at least three times per week. If they cannot tolerate those vegetables, they can go to health clinics and get intramuscular injections of glutathione. Pycnogenol and Co-enzyme Q10 are available as supplements — but please do your research because quality really matters with supplements.
After I learned about free radicals, antioxidants and heart health, I felt significantly more empowered. I had concrete, simple and delicious steps I could take to keep my blood vessels healthy. So, as you celebrate love this month, may you feel equally empowered to nourish your heart.
Dr. Lauren Gresham is a licensed naturopathic physician and a certified community health education specialist practicing in Shoreline. She holds a master’s degree in public health. Learn more about her by visiting www.nutimahealth.com.