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Proven Ways to "Unclog Your Heart," Say Experts

Here’s how to reverse atherosclerosis, according to doctors. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Coronary artery disease, a serious health condition where plaque buildup in arteries can limit blood flow and lead to heart attack and stroke, is the most common type of heart disease. "If you have the gumption to make major changes to your lifestyle, you can, indeed, reverse coronary artery disease," says cardiologist Thomas H. Lee, MSc, MD, BA. "This disease is the accumulation of cholesterol-laden plaque inside the arteries nourishing your heart, a process known as atherosclerosis." Here are five proven ways to unclog your heart, according to experts. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Regular Exercise

middle-aged woman jogging in winter in a close up low angle view against a sunny blue sky in a healthy active lifestyle

Research shows regular exercise is highly effective in reversing plaque buildup. "Preliminary studies and case studies have shown that modifying cardiac risk factors (particularly exercising and reducing cholesterol) can definitely decrease atherosclerotic plaques (particularly soft plaques)," says Roger White, MD. "Atherosclerotic plaque is dynamic. Vessels are always changing in response to it with remodeling and development of collateral circulation. There may never be total regression or reversal of atherosclerosis, but modifying any of the cardiac risk factors can influence plaque evolution in a positive direction. The biggest beneficial decrease is seen in the patients with the most advanced atherosclerosis. These are often the patients who have the most prevalent cardiac risk factors. Obviously, if we limit and reverse the factors that lead up to plaque formation it is more likely to slow or reverse the disease process and promote health."


Healthy Diet


"If you want to try cleaning out your arteries, take a look at the program recommended by Dr. Dean Ornish," says Dr. Lee. "These include his 'reversal diet' (a mostly vegetarian diet that delivers no more than 10 percent of calories from fat and fewer than 5 milligrams of cholesterol a day), daily exercise, stress management and group support. In a small trial that started out with 48 volunteers, cholesterol-clogged plaque shrank a small amount in the group following these changes compared with an increase in plaque in a control group."


Quit Smoking

stop smoking

Cigarette smoking is strongly linked to arterial plaque buildup, experts warn—even via secondhand smoke. "Tobacco smoke can damage the coronary arteries of nonsmokers through many different ways, which can lead to plaque formation and then to heart attacks, so this lends more [credence] to enforcing smoking bans," says Harvey Hecht, MD, associate director of cardiac imaging and professor of medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center. "We know heart disease is significantly accelerated by secondhand smoke exposure, so it should be included as a routine part of medical exams and discussions about heart disease and try to prevent it as best we can."


Maintain a Healthy Weight

weight fluctuates

Losing weight may help reverse atherosclerosis, research shows. "Long-term adherence to weight-loss diets is effective for reversing carotid atherosclerosis as long as we stick to one of the current options of healthy diet strategy," says Iris Shai, RD, PhD, study lead author and a nutrition epidemiologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-Sheva, Israel. "This effect is more pronounced among mildly obese persons who lose more than 5.5 kilograms (12.1 lbs) of body weight and whose systolic blood pressure decreases by more than 7 mmHg. An increase in ApoA1 (HDL cholesterol apolipoprotein) and a decrease in total homocysteine blood levels are further associated with subsequent success in reversing carotid atherosclerosis."


Watch Your Blood Sugar

female using lancelet on finger to checking blood sugar level by Glucose meter

Studies show high blood sugar can lead to clogged arteries. "Inflammation in blood vessels is one of the main drivers of atherosclerosis, and diabetes makes it much worse," says Jun-ichi Abe, MD, PhD, associate professor with the Aab Cardiovascular Research Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan