Evidence now suggests that sticking to a healthy diet, which is characterized by high consumption of fish, olive oil, and vegetables (and moderate wine) has been shown to have a positive effect on blood vessel function.
In my experience as a clinician for over 20 years, I have found this to be true. I have also discovered that knowing that it is better to eat a healthy diet is never enough to convince my patients to actually eat nutrient-rich foods, unless they understand how and why.
So let’s begin with understanding the blood vessels better and how or why food can help you keep them healthy!
What is a healthy blood vessel?
Your blood vessels transport blood throughout the body, delivering oxygen, hormones and other nutrients to the tissues and organs, while removing toxins and waste, like carbon dioxide. All the blood vessels walls are lined by special cells called endothelial cells (known as the endothelium).
The endothelium acts as a permeable barrier that allows certain substances to get through to the tissues, while blocking other substances, like larger molecules and toxins, from entering. A healthy endothelium is not only intact (without big holes), but also has smooth walls that are elastic and prevent clotting and inflammation:
What happens if the endothelium is damaged?
Imagine you have a tube that transports water and nutrients to your garden. Now imagine that the tube is leaky and rusty on the inside. What happens to the nutrients and water? How smooth is the flow of water and what else can get stuck now on the inside?
That’s right. The tube gets leaky and the rust that gathers on the inside causes the nutrients to clump up with dirt and whatever else is going through the tube. This results in big clots forming in the tube, a thinning or breaking down of the tube walls in some areas, and a hardening or stiffening of the walls in other areas. The tube becomes old and stiff and water flow is poor. Some water gets through, while the rest leaks out without making it it to its final destination. Meanwhile, rust and other germs get in and ruin your garden!
As such, endothelium damage leads to more blood clotting, plaque formation, inflammation, high blood pressure, poor deliver of nutrients to the body’s tissues, poor blood sugar regulation and ultimately, organ damage like heart disease, kidney problems, stroke, poor circulation (leading to limb loss) and vision loss.
What can harm the endothelium and why?
Smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, low physical activity, high cholesterol and high blood sugar have all been shown to be associated with an increased risk of developing blood vessel damage, as well as oxidative stress.
What can strengthen the endothelium?
The good news is that it is possible to support your blood vessels and endothelium to be healthy. You can:
- Keep your blood sugars within target range.
- Reduce stress and employing stress reduction techniques.
- Reduce alcohol intake.
- Lose weight.
- Quit smoking.
- Exercise regularly.
- Eat a healthy, nutrient-rich diet.
What are some nutrient-rich food tips?
1. Fish it up
Eating oily fish has been found to improve the elasticity of the blood vessels and new studies are also showing that the oils from fish may also speed up the repair process of damaged blood vessels. High in omega-3 fatty acids, higher intake of these oils has been associated with improved cardiovascular, vision, joint, brain and immune health. Sources of fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, artic char, sardines, mackerel, anchovies, halibut, and tuna.
2. You can’t go wrong with dark and leafy greens
Dark leafy greens, like kale and arugula, provide you with a multitude of vitamins, fiber, minerals (like magnesium, potassium and calcium) and phytonutrients, like polyphenols and carotenoids. Studies have shown that increasing dietary polyphenol intake can significantly improves cardiovascular risk markers. Additionally, polyphenols appear to play a beneficial role in decreasing blood pressure and inflammation.
Spinach, bell peppers, asparagus and broccoli, are loaded with carotenoids, a heart-protective antioxidant. Kale, spinach and my favorite, arugula, are loaded with vitamins C, A and K, other vegetables like broccoli and bok choy are loaded with B vitamins and folic acid. Folic acid and B-complex vitamins like B-12 and B-6 can help protect against clots and hardening of the arteries. B-3 is also called niacin, and can help lower your bad cholesterol or LDL.
3. Eat colorful vegetables and fruits
Adding color to your plate will also do your body good. Colorful vegetables and fruits are loaded with vitamins, fiber, minerals and phytonutrients, especially antioxidants. Antioxidants are your body’s natural scavengers that peruse your body to find, neutralize and get rid of free oxygen radicals, thus protecting your blood vessels from damage.
For instance, lycopene is a naturally occurring antioxidant that gives certain foods a reddish color. It has been linked to improving circulation through the body and also helps to reduce the risk of developing a number of other health conditions. Foods containing lycopene include watermelon, apricots, tomatoes and pink grapefruit. Other colorful fruit, like blueberries, dark plums, and dark grapes (the reason red wine is so good for you!) and apples are a great source of polyphenols.
Other colorful foods such as citrus fruit, tomatoes, broccoli, strawberries and red and green capsicum peppers also have the added benefit of being high in vitamin C, which has been found to support healthy blood vessels by strengthening them and helping them repair, particularly in individuals who have higher chances of vascular diseases such as atherosclerosis, heart failure and diabetes.
4. Add in tasty herbs
Rather than adding salt or sugar to your meals, instead opt for using herbs that may even be growing in your backyard. Not only will they add a delicious taste to your food, but they also have added health benefits. Basil, for instance, is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, and can help regulate blood glucose levels. Mint has powerful antioxidant properties, is high in vitamin C, fiber and iron, while oregano is also very high in antioxidants, omega-3, iron and vitamin K.
5. Add in sources of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid)
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a naturally occurring fatty acid found in meat and dairy products. CLA may have the potential to be antidiabetic and anti-inflammatory, may lower body fat and blood pressure, and possibly fight cancer. Ghee, (clarified butter whereby butter has been steamed to remove the milk and water) for example, is jam packed with CLA and fat-soluble vitamins, and it adds a great taste to your food. Greek feta cheese is also a wonderful and tasty source of CLA, and in itself has many potential health benefits.