Plaque in your arteries (atherosclerosis) is made of deposits of cholesterol, fat and other substances that can build up and reduce blood flow, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). You might be wondering if it's possible to dissolve or eliminate existing plaque with lifestyle changes.
"Atherosclerosis starts in young people and takes years to develop. Although you can't eliminate plaque, you can reduce your risk with a healthy lifestyle if you start early," says Mohammad Madjid, MD, associate professor of cardiovascular medicine at McGovern Medical School, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).
What Are the Signs of Plaque?
You can have plaque in your arteries without having any signs. Signs only start to occur when plaque grows large enough to slow or obstruct blood flow. Decreased blood flow to your heart can cause chest pain or a heart attack. Decreased blood flow in your brain can cause a stroke. Decreased blood flow can also cause kidney damage and reduce blood flow to your legs, causing pain with walking, the AHA notes.
"Plaque is like scar tissue that forms when the thin, smooth lining inside your arteries is damaged. Plaque can build up like sludge that forms inside a water pipe. A small amount may never cause any problems. Two factors that increase the growth of plaque include high cholesterol and inflammation," Dr. Madjid says.
Read more: What Are the Symptoms of Blocked Carotid Arteries?
Can You Reduce Plaque Once You Have It?
"Studies show you can shrink plaque by lowering your cholesterol with a heart-healthy diet or with a cholesterol-lowering medication," Dr. Madjid says, adding that a heart-healthy diet should be easy to follow. He recommends:
- Avoiding saturated fats.
- Avoiding red meats in favor of white meats and fish.
- Eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains.
- Limiting calories to maintain a healthy weight.
A heart-healthy diet should also be low in salt and added sugar, notes the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
You may have heard that drinking alcohol can improve heart health, especially red wine. But Dr. Madjid says drinking more than two to three alcoholic drinks a day can actually increase your risk of atherosclerosis. The AHA says not to start drinking for heart health, and if you do drink, talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits.
"If lifestyle factors are not enough to lower your cholesterol, you may need a medication. Statin drugs are important because they reduce cholesterol and inflammation," Dr. Madjid says. "Reducing inflammation is important because inflammation makes plaques worse and more dangerous. One reason that smoking is so bad for your heart is inflammation. Another important cause of inflammation is a viral infection like the flu, so make sure you get your flu shot."
The Mayo Clinic notes that a medication like low-dose aspirin can help slow the effects of atherosclerosis by reducing the possibility of platelets clumping in your arteries and causing more of a blockage.
You might also be wondering if there are supplements to unclog arteries. "Although a healthy diet that lowers cholesterol can shrink a plaque, there are no special foods or supplements that can dissolve or unclog a blocked artery," Dr. Madjid says.
Read more: Try a Plant-Based Diet to Reverse Atherosclerosis
Can You Prevent Plaque?
According to the NHLBI, your risk for atherosclerosis increases due to a number of risk factors. Reducing these risk factors may help prevent or delay plaque development. To help prevent plaque formation:
- Eat a heart-healthy diet.
- Don't smoke.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Avoid stress.
- Get enough exercise.
Other Treatments for Plaque
If you have severe atherosclerosis, you may need a medical procedure or surgery. The only way to remove a plaque from an artery is surgery called endarterectomy. This procedure is done to remove a plaque from an artery in your neck that supplies the brain, called the carotid artery, according to NHLBI.
Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) is a procedure to open a blocked or narrowed artery that supplies the heart, called a coronary artery. A small tube or stent can be placed to restore blood flow. Plaques can also be bypassed with grafting. This can be done for a heart artery and also for a blocked leg artery, NHLBI points out.
Is This an Emergency?
- American Heart Association: “Atherosclerosis”
- Mohammad Madjid, MD, MS, FACC, cardiologist, associate professor, cardiovascular medicine, McGovern Medical School, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “Atherosclerosis”
- American Heart Association: “Is Drinking Alcohol Part of a Healthy Lifestyle?”
- Mayo Clinic: “Arteriosclerosis / Atherosclerosis”