The cardiovascular system transports food, hormones, metabolic wastes, and gases (oxygen, carbon dioxide) to and from cells. Components of the system include blood (consisting of liquid plasma and cells), heart (a muscular pump to move the blood) and blood vessels (the "channels" which carry blood to/from all tissues). The arteries are strong, elastic vessels adapted for carrying oxygen-rich blood away from the heart at relatively high pumping pressure. They use vessel size (dilation and constriction), controlled by the nervous system, to move blood by pressure. Veins return deoxygenated blood to the heart and carry it to the lungs where blood is oxygenated before it returns to the heart. Arteries and veins run parallel throughout the body with a web-like network of capillaries connecting them. Capillaries are thin-walled blood vessels in which the exchange of gases, nutrients, and wastes between the blood and surrounding tissues occurs.
A strong, healthy heart is vital for longevity. The heart beats around 70 times per minute and undergoes over 3 billion contractions during a normal lifetime. The hard-working muscle needs a consistently sufficient blood and oxygen supply. Healthy blood vessels are elastic and flexible, accommodating blood flow changes due to physical activity and stress levels. The better the tone of the blood vessels the less the heart has to work to pump blood. Since an efficient working heart and vascular system are essential for all body functions, cardiovascular diseases can impact overall health. The term "cardiovascular disease” generally refers to conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack (blood supply is cut off from a part of the heart), angina pectoris (chest pain caused by too little blood and oxygen supply of the heart) or stroke (disturbance in the blood supply to the brain).
Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 worldwide killer of men and women (1) with global healthcare costs of over USD 500 billion (2). The main underlying mechanism is atherosclerosis, a condition in which an artery wall thickens as the result of abnormal build-ups of fatty materials such as cholesterol and a chronic inflammatory process in the inner lining of the arteries (3). As a consequence, multiple plaques are formed within the arteries causing a loss of their elasticity (hardening) and reducing their interior (narrowing). This can lead to a restricted or even blocked blood flow to organs and tissues.
By the time cardiovascular problems are detected, atherosclerosis is usually quite advanced, having progressed asymptomatically for decades. Thus, there is increased emphasis on preventing atherosclerosis by modifying the major risk factors: unhealthy diet, insufficient physical activity and tobacco smoking (4). A nutritious, balanced diet can significantly lower the chances of developing cardiovascular diseases, as well as help to manage existing heart disease. By incorporating certain micronutrients into the diet, cardiovascular health can be improved and maintained.