The One Thing That Actually Reduces Plaque Buildup In Your Arteries, According to Cardiologists

Heart doctor

What's the first thing you think of when you hear "plaque"? If it's related to dental health, you're probably not alone. However, plaque can also refer to something that can build up in the arteries, and it's way different than what your dentist cleans off a couple of times per year.

"Dental plaque is a sticky film of bacteria, while arterial plaque is a complex buildup of cholesterol, fat, calcium and cellular debris on artery walls," explains Dr. Rigved Tadwalkar, MD, a board-certified consultant cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center. "This buildup narrows the arteries, reducing blood flow and increasing the risk of heart disease."

That said, there are two things that the two plaque types have in common: they happen to everyone, and you can take steps to minimize this buildup.

"Plaque is a natural part of living, but there are many controllable risk factors to reduce your risk and slow down the progression of the disease," says Dr. Barbara Schechter, D.O., a cardiologist with Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

Cardiologists recommend one lifestyle habit in particular for reducing plaque buildup in the arteries.

Related: If You Want to Lower Your Heart Attack Risk, There's One Habit You Should Ditch ASAP

The No. 1 Best Habit for Reducing Plaque Buildup

Ready to get a move on? Here's some extra motivation: "One powerful habit to combat plaque buildup is regular physical activity," Dr. Tadwalkar says. "Exercise helps lower 'bad' LDL cholesterol, raise 'good' HDL cholesterol and improve blood pressure, all of which contribute to healthier arteries."

Dr. Tadwalkar adds that exercise can have an anti-inflammatory effect and can even lower insulin sensitivity, reducing a person's risk of developing Type 2 diabetes—a condition that increases your heart disease risk.

That's not all physical activity does. "Muscles in use need more oxygen and nutrients, which means they need more blood supply," Dr. Schechter says. "In response to regular exercise, we grow more blood vessels. Regular exercise leads to better vessel health even in people who already have known atherosclerosis [artery thickening or hardening because of plaque buildup]."

Oh, and there's this fact: "[Regular exercise] is important for emotional and cognitive health as well," Dr. Schechter adds.

How to Start Exercising

"Register for a triathlon—just kidding," quips Dr. Schechter. Actually, slow and steady wins the race (that you don't have to sign up for if you don't want to).

"The standard recommendation from the American Heart Association is to aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity," says Dr. Schechter. "That is about 20 minutes per day. However, anything you do is better than nothing."

Dr. Tadwalkar agrees that starting slow and small is a good idea, especially if you've struggled to stick to a workout regimen in the past or are busy. "For those who have difficulty initiating exercise, breaking up sitting time with short walks throughout the day is a great way to start," Dr. Tadwalkar says. "Gradually increase duration and intensity as your fitness improves."

Dr. Schechter says you can also be a "weekend warrior" and split your 150 minutes of exercise over two days if that fits your schedule.

"What matters is that you get moving," Dr. Schechter says. How should you get moving? Like your schedule, your workouts of choice should suit you.

"Find activities you enjoy,"  Dr. Tadwalkar says. "Brisk walking, swimming, cycling, dancing—the options are endless. Join a fitness class or find an exercise buddy for motivation."

Related: 'I'm a Cardiologist—This Is the Afternoon Snack I Eat Almost Every Day'

5 Other Cardiologist-Backed Tips for Reducing Plaque Buildup in the Arteries

1. Know your risk factors (and make sure your doctor does too)

Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your heart health—including identifying whether you have plaque building up in the arteries—is to understand your cardiovascular disease risk factors.

"The key thing is to review risk factors with your doctor to ensure that they are being thoroughly evaluated and, if needed, addressed with lifestyle changes and/or medications," says Dr. Ashish Sarraju, MD, a cardiologist in preventive cardiology at Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Sarraju says this step can help your doctor develop a personalized treatment plan with you. What are those risk factors for plaque buildup? "There are many risk factors for plaque buildup, including high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and family history of heart disease," says Dr. Kevin Rabii, MD, a cardiologist with Memorial Hermann in Houston. "By addressing risk factors, plaque buildup can be minimized."

Related: The #1 Anti-Inflammatory Food You Should Eat Every Day if You Want To Live to 100

2. Follow the Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet has been ranked as the top diet by US News & World Report seven years in a row for several reasons. One is its ability to reduce heart disease risk, which includes plaque buildup.

Dr. Rabii says this diet includes:

  • Fruits

  • Vegetables

  • Whole grains

  • Nuts

  • Olive oil

  • Protein sources like beans, fish and poultry

  • Dairy products in moderation

3. Quit smoking

One of the most significant people can do to reduce plaque buildup risks is to quit smoking if they haven't already.

"Smoking has a well-known association with plaque buildup and promotes inflammation and risk of plaque rupture," Dr. Schechter says.

The CDC offers numerous resources, and your state or local government may also have some.

4. Manage stress

Staying mentally healthy can also do wonders for your physical health.

"Managing stress is also important, as chronic stress can contribute to inflammation, which can go on to exacerbate plaque buildup in the arteries," Dr. Tadwalkar says. "Exploring relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation can be beneficial in mitigating stress."

5. Seek treatment

If lifestyle habits alone don't help you reduce plaque buildup, give yourself some grace.

"We can’t control our genes or family history, but preventive therapy and modern medicine can make a difference," Dr. Schechter explains. "Control what you can to the best of your ability, but allow modern medicine to help you when it is needed."

Dr. Sarraju says these treatments might include:

  • Medication to control LDL cholesterol, like statins

  • Blood pressure medication

  • Any applicable medicines to control diabetes, which increase the risk of cardiac events

Can You Tell if You Have Plaque Buildup In Your Arteries?

It's challenging to know without the advice of a medical professional. "If there is plaque buildup that isn't severe or causing symptoms, it is hard to know whether it is happening," Dr. Sarraju says.

For this reason, it's key to see your doctor and have an open dialogue about your heart health.

"The only way to know if you have plaque buildup is medical imaging that your doctor may consider ordering," Dr. Rabii says. "If you are concerned about your heart health, see your doctor or healthcare provider to determine the best course of action."