What Causes Plaques in Arteries?

Blood vessels which carry oxygen rich blood throughout our body are called arteries. In a normal and healthy individual these arteries have smoother inner walls and hence, the blood passes through them very easily. However, in some individuals there is a deposition of ‘Plaque’. These plaques restrict the smooth flow of blood leading to various health complications due to lack of blood supply. Preventing and removing these plaques, thus, becomes very important to stay fit and healthy. Let us see the reasons that cause the plaques, and how one can prevent them.

What Causes Plaques in Arteries?

What is a Plaque and How it Affects the Arteries?

Plaque is made of substances such as cholesterol, calcium and fat which combine with smooth muscle cells and deposits on the inner smooth walls of the arteries. As Plaque deposits grow in size they lead to narrowing and hardening of arteries. This condition is called Atherosclerosis. It results in clogged arteries and obstructs the blood flow to cardiac tissue causing heart attack and to brain causing brain stroke. Both of which is an emergency situation and can result in death.

Atherosclerosis is the leading cause of death worldwide. The ultimate manifestations of it are in the form of cardiovascular diseases affecting the heart or stroke affecting the brain. It is a lifestyle related disease caused due to unhealthy eating habits and lack of exercise. The problem with atherosclerosis is that the symptoms are not seen (asymptomatic) in majority of the patients. It is a silent killer. While in some cases, the presentation is chest pain, dizziness, sweating, shortness of breath and heart palpitations.

How Does Plaques Form?

The formation of plaque is a sequential process and develops into atherosclerosis over the years.

  • The arteries are made of a thin layer of cells called endothelium which helps in keeping the artery smooth and also allows an easy flow of blood.
  • The process starts when there is excess of cholesterol (>200mg/dl) in the body.
  • When levels of HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) or good cholesterol are low (<30mg/dl) and levels of LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) or bad cholesterol are high (>100mg/dl), then excess of cholesterol from LDL is deposited onto the inner walls of the arteries.
  • Over time, deposition of cholesterol, fat, calcium and other substances in the arteries, leads to formation of a Plaque. This narrows and hardens the arteries resulting in clogged arteries. The condition is known as atherosclerosis.
  • When one of these plaques ruptures, it spills out cholesterol and other substances into the bloodstream and reduces the blood flow through the arteries. Due to its natural tendency, the body tries to repair the injured blood vessel. Hence, the body sends macrophage (type of white blood cells) to clear the cholesterol, but sometimes these cells gets stuck at the site of ruptured plaque. This process results in formation of a blood clot. If the clot is large enough, it completely blocks the flow of blood.
  • When obstruction occurs in the coronary artery of the heart, it leads to the starvation of the heart cells and they get killed. This leads to heart attack, also called as myocardial infarction (MI). While when the obstruction occurs in the carotid artery supplying blood to the brain, it leads to stroke.
  • Heart attack can be mild and the person can be saved with proper medication. However, in most cases, it is fatal and leads to immediate death of the person.

What Causes Plaque in the Arteries?

The following are the causative (risk) factors which can lead to plaque formation:

  • High Blood Pressure can Cause Plaques in Arteries: High BP weakens and damages arteries of heart which eventually causes atherosclerosis.
  • High Levels of Cholesterol: Excess of cholesterol gets deposited in arteries leading to plaque formation.
  • Smoking can Cause Plaques in Arteries: This habit weakens the arteries.
  • High Levels of Blood Sugar: Diabetes leads to increased levels of fat in the body which gets deposited in arteries.
  • Heavy Consumption of Alcohol: Drinking too much of alcohol increases the level of fat in body leading to its deposition in arteries.
  • Sedentary Lifestyle as a Reason for Plaque formation in Arteries: A sedentary lifestyle which incorporates mostly sitting work and very less physical activity disturbs the body’s metabolism which leads to excess of fat in body. This results in weakening of arteries and this atherosclerosis.
  • Diet Lacking in Vegetables and Fruits: A diet that lacks fruits and vegetables increases the chances of plaque formation. Reducing these risk factors can decrease the chances of plaque formation and thus atherosclerosis.

Foods That are Known to Cause Plaque in Arteries

Eating healthy food is the key to a good health. Eating junk food affects our health in long run. Foods which contain high amounts of saturated fat, trans-fat, and dietary cholesterol are risk factors for atherosclerosis.

  • Saturated Fat: Consumption of large quantities of saturated fat is not good for health. It is obtained through ice creams, butter, whole milk, processed meat products, palm and coconut oils. It is suggested that consumption of slim milk, removal of skin from meat products and eating vegetables and fruits is more beneficial.
  • Trans Fat: It is a type of man made fat. It is present in restaurant foods, pizzas, cake, and cookies. It has been suggested to consume less of trans fat to reduce chances of atherosclerosis.
  • Dietary Cholesterol can Cause Plaques in Arteries: Cholesterol is present in only animal products such as eggs, cheese and meat. Excessive consumption of these products leads to increased levels of fat in the body eventually leading to plaque formation.

The best way to overcome the problem of atherosclerosis is to consume these products in limited amounts. Further, to increase metabolism by regular exercise and avoiding sedentary lifestyle.


Plaque formation or atherosclerosis is a lifestyle disease. It can be treated with medications and by surgical interventions. However, the onset of the condition can well be prevented and controlled. The best way to control it is to change the eating habits, no smoking and no consumption of alcohol and by regular exercise.

Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:May 12, 2017

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