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Myth-busting the clogged artery is an excellent topic for science nerds, former watchers of MythBusters, and those who like to dig into every topic to learn the mechanics behind the scenes. This will also be an easy read for those who trust common knowledge or what their doctor tells them. Sometimes common knowledge and your doctor need to be updated. Today, we’re going to change what you think you know. There will be new info for both science nerds and trusting patients!

Test The Myth!

MythBusters was a Discovery Channel show that took on scientific ideas and put them to the test. Based on their investigations, they’d deem a concept “a fact,” plausible,” or entirely bust the myth. It’s the same philosophy Doc likes to bring to his work with patients as he helps them find answers. 

In this article, we’ll address one of the medical field’s most prolific myths, the clogged artery. It’s spread on the internet, by friends, neighbors, and even by our doctors. Many believe plaque builds on the artery walls, leading to clogging and a stroke or heart attack. Some doctors know how it works but don’t have time to explain it to their patients. The myth keeps going.

You can even find this on a popular resource many turn to when they have medical questions: WebMD. Don’t worry; you’re not the only one who’s googled their symptoms at 2 am. WebMD says: “Clogged arteries result from a buildup of a substance called plaque on the walls of the arteries. Arterial plaque can reduce blood flow or, in some instances, block it altogether.” [1]

Is this how it all goes down? No. So, let’s take a look at what really happens. It’s essential to understand the mechanics of our arteries and body if we’re going to make a difference in the heart disease arena. It’s also crucial to understand this for the sake of our own health.

Plaque does not form ON the walls of the arteries. It forms IN the walls of the arteries. The pictures from any scientific textbook or Google image search on a plaque from a credible source represent this specific point. The plaque doesn’t sit within the bloodstream on the blood vessel wall. It lies underneath the arterial wall. This myth of plaque on the wall persists even though it leads to some damaging assumptions about how we prevent strokes and heart attacks. [2]

So How Does Plaque Get There?

So, if it’s not lining the outside of the arterial wall, how does it get inside? Inflammation. The plaque can’t make it into the arterial wall without inflammation being present. The inflammation damages the arterial wall while breaking down LDL particles, making them smaller. That leads to plaque formation.

Think of the artery wall like a tennis net, with the plaque as the tennis balls. A tennis net usually keeps the tennis balls from getting through. The tennis balls can only get through the tennis net if they’re smaller than the holes in the net. If LDL particles break down, they can pass through.

Once they get through, they build up until they rupture. Once LDL cholesterol ruptures, the blood starts clotting as the body should when there is a bunch of junk in the blood. Then if the clot builds up big enough, it will block an artery. We have an abundance of arteries in our hearts and brains. That’s what leads to a heart attack or stroke.

How The Myth Damages Our Approach

How are clogged arteries prevented for the majority of heart patients? They’re given a statin medication to lower cholesterol. So now, after everything you know from our myth-busting, you may wonder what cholesterol-lowering has to do with the plaque in artery walls. Now you’re paying attention. It has nothing to do with preventing heart disease, and it can increase your risk of having a stroke.

Cholesterol has always gotten a bad rap. It’s there at the site of plaque formation, so researchers assumed it was the cause of the plaque. Just because the police are at the scene of a crime doesn’t mean they are the ones that caused it. Whenever there is damage or inflammation, cholesterol has to go there to protect and heal the area. So cholesterol isn’t the bad guy here; cholesterol is the police.

Cholesterol is doing its job to heal and protect. While the body does its job when it sends the cholesterol to the damaged tissue, some view that as harmful. This misconception leads to the frequent prescription of cholesterol-lowering medications.

The statin lowers the cholesterol in the blood, but it doesn’t remove the plaque. The only thing that carries the plaque away is HDL cholesterol. It’s the part of the cholesterol situation that takes the plaque out of the artery. Taking medications doesn’t reduce heart disease risk or prevent a stroke.

Control The Clogged Artery Myth

If you know the mechanism of how the clogged artery occurs, you have the tools to do something about it. And prevent it- that’s the difference maker.

Your doctor should be measuring to see if the environment is promoting plaque formation. Instead of cholesterol numbers, make sure your doctor is looking at inflammation numbers. Make certain inflammation is not affecting your cholesterol profile or arterial wall strength. There are ways to remedy inflammation that don’t require the side effects of a statin medication.

We busted the persistent myths of the clogged artery and looked at what causes heart disease and strokes. Don’t leave it at that if you’re concerned about heart disease or stroke. Take the MythBusters approach to those concerns and get them tested with a doctor you trust.

To learn more, check out: Cholesterol: The Real Story Behind Medicine’s Scapegoat.

Originally posted October 18, 2017. Updated August 7, 2023.


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Disclaimer: This content is for educational purposes only. It’s not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your Wellness Way clinic or personal physician, especially if currently taking prescription or over-the-counter medications. Pregnant women, in particular, should seek the advice of a physician before trying any herb or supplement listed on this website. Always speak with your individual clinic before adding any medication, herb, or nutritional supplement to your health protocol. Information and statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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