January 01, 2013

Blood vessel health

A whole-body concern

Blood vessel health

When you think of organs in the body, what first comes to mind? Of course, there are the biggies — heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, brain. Blood vessels probably didn't make the cut.

Much of your health actually depends on the condition of your blood vessels, and in particular the condition of the thin layer of cells lining the inside of your blood vessels (endothelial cells). That layer is called the endothelium, and it functions as a unique organ throughout your body's maze of blood vessels.

In recent decades, research has provided a clearer picture of the endothelium's importance to overall health. An understanding of what helps shape blood vessel health — as well as what can spell trouble — increases the value of making healthy lifestyle choices.

Tubular wonders

Blood vessels vary dramatically in size and in the roles they play. Healthy arteries are elastic so that they can propel oxygen-rich blood away from your heart and out to the rest of your tissues. Veins have thinner walls and transport oxygen-depleted blood back to the heart. The tiniest blood vessels — capillaries — act as a bridge between arterial and venous blood vessels. Both arteries and veins are lined with endothelium. Capillaries themselves consist of a single layer of endothelial cells and allow oxygen, nutrients and waste to be exchanged between blood and tissues.

The endothelium influences the actions of all of these vessels. It helps regulate vascular function and thereby affects all of your organs. It secretes...