The tiny garlic clove may play a big role in reducing the risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke. How could such a simple herb have such powerful, far-reaching effects? To explore the answer and gain some appreciation for garlic's labors on our behalf, it's important to have a basic understanding of how the heart functions in sickness and in health.
Heart disease is the number one killer of Americans. The most common form of heart disease occurs when the arteries that deliver oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to the heart become narrowed or clogged and lose their elasticity. Blood flow to the heart diminishes or may be cut off completely, starving the organ of oxygen. Without adequate oxygen, the heart can no longer work properly and heart cells begin to die.
Cholesterol and other debris in the blood causes plaque,
which can restrict blood flow and even lead to a heart attack or stroke.
This process is similar to the way we might use spackle to patch a small hole in drywall. But the sticky spackle the body produces to heal the wound causes fatty substances (including cholesterol), proteins, calcium, inflammatory cells, and other "debris" in the blood to stick to the vessel walls, forming plaque.
As the plaque accumulates on the inner walls of the arteries, the arteries become less elastic, which leaves them vulnerable to even more injury. The gradual buildup of plaque also slowly narrows the inner diameter of the artery, and blood flow is hampered.
In addition, the plaque itself can crack, or bits of plaque can become dislodged. The body responds by sending platelets (particles in the blood that aid clotting) to form a clot around the plaque, further narrowing the artery.
In some cases, the blood clot may completely block the flow of blood through the artery. Cells beyond the blockage that depend on a steady flow of oxygen from the blood can die. When this occurs in an artery that feeds the heart muscle (known as a coronary artery), it's called a heart attack. If this happens in a vessel that feeds the brain, the result is a stroke.
Cholesterol's Role in Heart Disease
Some cholesterol is necessary for normal body processes -- it is a vital part of cell membranes, transports nutrients into and waste products out of cells, and is part of the structure of many hormones, among other functions -- but too much of the wrong kind leads to trouble. A quick review of cholesterol will help you appreciate the beneficial role garlic might play in your heart's health.
Dietary cholesterol is a fatty substance, or lipid. When you eat cholesterol in food, as in meat, eggs, and cheese, your body breaks it down to digest it, then turns some of it back into cholesterol. Your body also makes cholesterol out of the solid fats (saturated fat and trans fat) in your diet.
Heredity also plays a role in the amount of cholesterol your body produces. Genetics determine whether your body makes a little or a lot of cholesterol from the fats you eat. If you have a family history of high blood cholesterol, your body may make large amounts of the substance regardless of your eating and activity habits.
All this cholesterol is transported throughout your body via your internal highway -- the bloodstream. There are several types of blood cholesterol. The most significant are:
HDL cholesterol. HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein. HDL carries the nickname "good" cholesterol because it works to eliminate excess blood cholesterol so it doesn't collect in the arteries and increase your risk for heart attacks and strokes. HDL carries cholesterol to the liver, where it is metabolized and then eliminated from the body. The higher your HDL level, the lower your chance of getting heart disease.
Triglycerides. Triglycerides are another form of lipid. Although they are not cholesterol, they do adversely affect your heart's health if you have too many in your blood. They can contribute to the thickening of artery walls. Your body manufactures triglycerides, and they are also present in food.
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