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3 keys to healthy blood vessels

Because your heart and brain depend on a steady flow of blood, you must keep your blood vessels in tip-top shape. Unhealthy, hardened or narrowed blood vessels slow blood flow, setting the stage for blood clots that can trigger a heart attack or stroke. Eating a healthy diet plays an important role in vascular health, and experts have identified three nutrients key to keeping your blood vessels free and clear.

1. Fortify with folate.

Folate and the man-made version, folic acid, are B vitamins that help produce and maintain new body cells. Folate helps metabolize homocysteine, an amino acid found normally in the blood. Elevated homocysteine levels can damage coronary arteries and impair their ability to keep blood moving through them easily. Women of childbearing age are urged to get adequate folate because the nutrient is credited with reducing birth defects.

What you need: Most teens and adults should aim for 400 micrograms (mcg) of folate or folic acid a day; pregnant women should get 600 mcg daily.

How to get it: Folate is found in leafy green vegetables like spinach and turnip greens, citrus fruits and juices and dried beans and peas. In the United States, enriched foods like bread, cereal, flour, cornmeal, pasta, rice and other grain products are fortified with folic acid.

2. Optimize with omega-3 fatty acids.

Two types of omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are found in cold-water fish such as salmon. A third, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) comes from tofu and other forms of soybeans, canola, walnuts, flaxseed and their oils. Omega-3 fatty acids perform anti-inflammatory and anti-blood clotting actions in the body. They help lower cholesterol and triglycerides and reduce blood pressure, keeping the blood vessels unclogged and healthy.

What you need: Aim for between 0.5 grams (g) and 1.8 g of DHA and EPA; and 1.5 g to 3 g daily of ALA.

How to get it: Eat a variety of fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines and albacore tuna at least twice a week. Include tofu and soybeans, walnuts, flaxseed and their oils in your diet. If you already have coronary heart disease or need to lower your triglycerides, your healthcare provider may suggest you take fish oil capsules.

3. Ensure you get arginine.

The body uses arginine, a semi-essential amino acid, to make nitric oxide, which helps the blood vessels relax, aiding proper blood flow. However, some studies suggest using arginine aids treatment of angina, atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease, peripheral vascular disease and vascular headache.

What you need: Your body manufactures arginine so most people get enough on their own.

How to get it: Foods that contain arginine include peanuts, almonds, walnuts, pecans, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, chocolate, raisins, brown rice, buckwheat, barley and corn.