You Can Help Reverse Heart Disease

It’s about lifestyle, not just medication

Pomegranate
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In medical school, I was taught that coronary artery disease (CAD), or the blockages that can choke blood flow to the heart and cause chest pain and heart attack, progresses from minor "fatty streaks" in youth to plaques or early narrowings in young adulthood, and on to complicated plaques later in life. The arrows always pointed toward the disease advancing and never reversing. This one-way street toward worsening was shown to be incorrect in 1990 by Dean Ornish, MD.

Dr. Ornish prescribed a plant-based diet without added fats to patients with proven heart blockages. He also recommended walking, social support, and stress management to help their hearts. He demonstrated that the patients who adhered to his “lifestyle program” felt better and showed reductions in the amount of narrowings in their arteries. Dr. Ornish followed his patients for longer periods of time and, with further testing, showed even more improvements, avoidance of hospitalizations, and reduced costs.

Since those first reports, the data that heart disease can be reversed by intensive lifestyle changes emphasizing a plant-based diet low in added fats has become so robust that the Ornish Lifestyle program was recognized by Medicare in 2010 for reimbursement as a therapy of CAD. A similar program, based out of the Pritikin Longevity Center in southern Florida, received the same Medicare designation for intensive therapy and reversal of heart disease with dietary therapy.

Because both the work by Dr. Ornish and the original site of the Pritikin Center was done in California, it could be argued that the plant-based dietary reversal of heart disease is only a “West coast thing.” Fortunately, a similar research program at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, led by Caldwell Esselstyn, MD, identified the same types of clinical improvements (shrinking and reversal of heart blockages) in patients with advanced heart disease who converted to totally plant-based diets without added oils.

True Health Initiative (THI), of which I am a member, has a mission to create a culture free of preventable chronic disease by demonstrating and disseminating the global consensus on the fundamental, evidence-based truths of lifestyle as medicine. Plant-based diets for heart disease reversal and as a lifestyle practice for overall health fit squarely into our goal.

Foods With Special Abilities to Reverse Plaque

Although researchers like Drs. Ornish and Esselstyn did not emphasize particular plant-based foods to promote reversal of heart disease, subsequent studies suggest that certain foods may have special abilities to reverse CAD and can be added to any diet as a protection against heart disease. 

Garlic and Onions

The ability of garlic to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood clotting has been recognized for some time. There have actually been a surprising number of studies testing the ability of aged garlic extract to halt heart disease progression.

For example, in a study published in early 2016 that used baseline and follow-up CT angiograms of heart arteries, aged garlic extract reduced areas of plaque in heart arteries at the one-year follow-up.

Additionally, onions, like garlic, provide a source of sulfur in the diet that may be crucial for maintaining optimal amounts of antioxidants.

Pomegranates

Pomegranate juice and seeds both have powerful antioxidant properties that may improve the function of HDL cholesterol. This protective cholesterol may boost the reverse cholesterol transport, or “vacuum cleaner” function in arteries, that may reverse CAD.

In studies of mice, pomegranates can reduce atherosclerosis (although we can’t always reliably translate animal research results into implications on human health). In people with increased stress at risk for CAD, pomegranates can reduce evidence of arterial damage. Another, albeit small study on humans using pomegranate juice for three years found that the degree of narrowing in carotid arteries of five study subjects was reduced.

Bergamot

The bergamot is a citrus fruit that is native to the Calabria region of Italy. It has powerful antioxidant components that lower blood sugar and cholesterol. In a study of subjects with thickened carotid arteries, those given bergamot supplements had a marked reduction in carotid intimal thickening after six months of therapy.

Green Tea

Green tea is comprised of many bioactive compounds that may lower oxidative stress (rusting of arteries), inflammation, and cholesterol fractions leading to improved arterial health. In a study using angiographic analysis, the more green tea that was consumed, the lower the risk of heart attack. A relationship between tea intake and lower cardiac mortality risk has also been reported. 

The Power of Lifestyle Medicine to Treat CAD

The optimal goal of therapy for patients with CAD should be the reversal of disease with intensive lifestyle related measures, not just disease management. Indeed, in the Lifestyle Heart Trial organized by Dr. Ornish, participants managed with medical therapy alone demonstrated progression of their CAD in follow-up.

Diet and lifestyle can be powerful additions to the standard therapy of heart disease and may be even more powerful than medications in promoting the reversal of long standing blockages. The great news is that you have the power control your health outcomes by using whole foods as a nutrient-rich fuel source.

A Word From Dr. David L. Katz

Verywell Senior Medical Advisor and True Health Initiative Founder

Studies have shown impressive prevention of cardiovascular events and other major chronic diseases with other variations on the theme of healthful dietary patterns emphasizing minimally processed, predominantly plant foods. In particular, the traditional Mediterranean diet has been associated with a wide array of health benefits. Based on vast and diverse scientific evidence, the basic theme of optimal eating is quite clear. It is also clear that we have choices among the variations on this theme, empowering us all to love the food that loves us—and our coronaries—back.

 

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