Atherosclerosis has been steadily hiking up its numbers – but why? Researchers believe our love affair with added sugar and ultra-processed foods could be to blame. We’ll be diving into what the condition actually is and the major causes behind it.
Atherosclerosis is a condition that occurs when the walls of your arteries become thick and hard, narrowing the space through which blood can flow. This can lead to a host of health problems, including heart attacks and strokes. It's also believed to be the underlying cause of 50% of deaths in the western world. Yikes. While the exact causes of atherosclerosis are still being studied, there are several factors that are believed to play a significant role.
High levels of cholesterol in the blood
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is essential for the functioning of your body's cells. However, when there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it can build up on the walls of your arteries, leading to the formation of plaques. These plaques can narrow your arteries and restrict blood flow, leading to atherosclerosis. There are two main types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL cholesterol is often referred to as "bad" cholesterol because it can contribute to the formation of plaques, while HDL cholesterol is known as "good" cholesterol because it helps to remove excess cholesterol from your bloodstream. So, not only does high LDL cholesterol raise our risk for atherosclerosis, but all manner of heart disease.
Inflammation in the arteries
Inflammation is a natural response of your body's immune system to injury or infection. However, when inflammation occurs in the walls of your arteries, it can contribute to the development of atherosclerosis. When your arteries are inflamed, white blood cells and other substances can accumulate in the damaged area, leading to the formation of plaques. This is why conditions that are associated with chronic inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, can increase your risk of developing atherosclerosis.
High blood pressure
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a condition in which the force of blood against the walls of your arteries is consistently too high. Over time, this can cause damage to the walls of your arteries, leading to the formation of plaques. High blood pressure can also contribute to the accumulation of cholesterol in your arteries. If left untreated, high blood pressure can increase your risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular problems.
The link between excess sugar consumption and atherosclerosis
Researchers have found a link between the disease and excess sugar consumption, and it’s all to do with the ways the sweet stuff raises our risk for other conditions. Think high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and heart disease. Let’s take a look at heart disease and high cholesterol – too much sugar encourages the development of high levels of triglycerides and LDL cholesterol in the blood. When you consume sugar, your body converts it into glucose, which is used by your cells for energy. However, when you consume too much of the stuff, your body cannot use all of the glucose right away, so it stores it as triglycerides in your fat cells. High levels of triglycerides in the blood have been linked to an increased risk of atherosclerosis, as they can contribute to the formation of plaques on the walls of your arteries. Consuming too much added sugar can also increase the levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood. With a high-sugar diet, your liver produces more LDL cholesterol, while lowering our levels of the good cholesterol. Too much added sugar has also been linked to inflammation in the body, which is another factor that can contribute to the development of atherosclerosis. It can cause a rapid spike in your blood-sugar levels, which can trigger an inflammatory response in your body. If you keep this up, you might end up with chronic inflammation, leading to the damaging of the walls of your arteries, which then leaves you vulnerable to the formation of plaques.
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