By the time many people reach their 20s, blockages that disrupt the flow of blood already exist within their arteries. Responsible for carrying oxygen-rich blood and life-sustaining nutrients from the heart to the rest of the body, healthy arteries are essential for maintaining a healthy body.
But when particles of cholesterol, fat, and other cells build up in arteries—thanks mostly to a Western diet loaded with meat, dairy products, and eggs—they create fatty streaks and eventually form plaques that obstruct blood flow.
In coronary artery disease—the most common type of cardiovascular disease and leading killer in the United States—these blockages affect the arteries leading to the heart, causing chest pain and often resulting in heart attack.
But blockages do not only affect the arteries in the chest. Atherosclerosis, or the thickening of arteries, can strike any artery in the system, leading to different symptoms throughout the body that can serve as early warning signs for cardiovascular disease.
While different people experience symptoms differently, let’s take a look at three common ways clogged arteries can manifest throughout the body:
Lower back pain: The arteries leading to the lower back are among the first in the body to accumulate plaque and show signs of blockage. In fact, 10 percent of Americans already experience advanced blockages in these arteries by age 20. Reduced blood flow to the back can weaken the disks that cushion the vertebrae and lead to painful herniated disks and pinched nerves. And according to studies, people who suffer from chronic back pain – the most common form of pain in the United States – are far more likely to have clogged lumbar arteries compared to those who do not experience back pain.
Erectile Dysfunction: In many cases, erectile dysfunction is an early warning sign for clogged arteries. When blood flow to the penis is reduced, sexual dysfunction results. A recent study found that screening men with erectile dysfunction for heart disease could prevent a million heart attacks or strokes over the next 20 years.
Stroke: When plaque accumulates in the arteries leading to the brain, the path for blood flow narrows, depriving portions of the brain of oxygenated blood. Without oxygen, brain cells begin to die in what is known as a thrombotic stroke.
Since arterial blockages in one area can indicate systemic damage, medications that treat isolated symptoms may not be the most effective way to treat the underlying problem. Studies show that the most powerful prescription may not lie in the pill bottle, but rather on our plates. Consuming a plant-based diet free of cholesterol and low in fat has been proven to reverse arterial blockages and improve blood flow.