Coronary heart disease, also called coronary artery disease, is a narrowing of the small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart, and is caused by the buildup of plaque in the arteries to your heart (atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries).(1) The plaque is an accumulating mess of cholesterol, cells, and debris that creates a bump on the artery wall that gets bigger over time, which can cause shortness of breath or chest pain (angina).(2, 3) Eventually the growing plaque can completely block the coronary artery and deprive the heart of oxygen and nutrients, causing a heart attack.(2) This type of blockage takes time to grow and comes with warnings (shortness of breath or chest pain), usually allowing for treatment.
Of bigger concern is that the LDL (bad) cholesterol inside the plaque gets oxidized by free radicals from oils, dairy and meat. White cells consume and fill up with the oxidized LDL, becoming nasty chemical substances that erode the cap over the plaque until it becomes thin as a cobweb and then suddenly ruptures from the pressure of blood as it flows over the plaque. The ruptured plaque then leaks into the blood and triggers clotting, which grows very rapidly and quickly blocks the artery (in a matter of minutes), depriving the heart muscle of oxygen and nutrients, causing a heart attack that comes without any warning and is most often fatal.(4)
Vascular endothelial cells make up a thin layer of cells that line the blood vessels throughout our entire circulatory system, from our heart to our smallest capillaries.(2, 5) These endothelial cells provide a smooth, protective surface that prevent toxic, blood-borne substances from penetrating into the smooth muscle of the blood vessel directly below.(6)
Caldwell B. Esselstyn Jr., MD refers to endothelial cells as the “lifejacket of our blood vessels” because our endothelial cells manufacture nitric oxide, which he calls a “magical protective molecule of gas” that protects blood vessels, keeps our blood flowing smoothly, is the strongest dilator (widener) of our blood vessels, inhibits formation of blockages (plaques), and inhibits inflammation!(2)
I like to think of the nitric oxide produced by healthy endothelial cells as a “teflon lining”, or non-stick surface inside my arteries that keeps the nasty mass of cholesterol, cells, and debris from ever sticking to the walls of my arteries, keeps my arteries dilated, and prevents plaques from ever getting the opportunity to form, let alone grow into blockages.
Stay tuned – tomorrow I will tell you how to keep your endothelial cells healthy!