What is cardiovascular disease?

What are the cardiovascular diseases?

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the world, and includes a range of conditions affecting the heart, brain and circulatory systems such as coronary artery disease, arrhythmias (problems with heart rhythm), atherosclerosis (damaging plaques inside arteries), heart failure, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease.

Often cardiovascular disease is associated with more complex cardiometabolic disorders such as insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and kidney and lung disorders. Cardiometabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease and insulin resistance are associated with and can impact cardiovascular health.

middle age woman with palm of hand pressed on chest over heart
side profile of middle aged man with good cardiometabolic health smiling gazing out window

Natural cardiovascular disease support

While genetics, ethnicity, gender, and hormonal life stage can play a role in the development of cardiovascular and cardiometabolic disease, diet, being overweight, having a sedentary lifestyle, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are some of the leading risk factors for the development of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin resistance and the chronic systemic inflammation that gives rise to cardiovascular and cardiometabolic disease.

Thankfully, for those looking for natural cardiovascular disease treatment, functional medicine has the potential to improve your health state and reduce your risk of cardiovascular events, regardless of what your current health status is. By addressing underlying causes of dysfunction, our functional medicine specialists have helped many Australians turn their cardiovascular health around.


Cardiovascular disease symptoms and definitions

Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella term for various conditions affecting aspects of the entire cardiovascular system. The process leading to cardiovascular disease can take years to develop before symptoms are typically observed. The most types of cardiovascular diseases in Australia and common symptoms of cardiovascular disease include:

High blood pressure

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is an elevation in blood pressure due to the heart having to pump harder and the blood vessels becoming less elastic. Symptoms include mild headaches, a flushed appearance to the face, shortness of breath, nose bleeds, and visible blood vessels in the white parts of the eye.

Heart attack

Also called myocardial infarction, a heart attack occurs suddenly, and is an emergency requiring urgent attention. It occurs when the heart is starved of blood, due to a blocked artery, and can lead to death.

Symptoms tend to be, especially for men, chest pain or discomfort, neck or upper back pain, or arms, nausea or vomiting, indigestion, upper body discomfort, dizziness, shortness of breath and extreme fatigue.

Some people may have no symptoms, while others may have:

  • Pain in the jaw, throat, or neck
  • Pain in the abdomen or back
  • Angina (heavy, dull or sharp chest pain or discomfort)
  • Nausea, vomiting, fatigue, shortness of breath
  • Or the same symptoms as men

Call 000 for an ambulance if any of these symptoms occur. It is better to be safe than sorry.

Congestive heart failure

Heart failure occurs when the heart muscles become so weak they cannot adequately pump enough blood to nourish cells. The most common type can occur due to ‘stiff’ heart muscles, called heart failure preserved ejection fraction (HFpEF), preventing the heart from relaxing properly. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is related to a genetic mutation that when ‘expressed’ (switched on) can cause the walls of the heart to stiffen, and thicken, limiting how much blood the ventricle can take in and pump out.

Symptoms of congestive heart failure include shortness of breath, swelling of the feet, ankles and legs, neck veins or abdomen, leg cramps, and fatigue. Heart failure can lead to a cardiac arrest, with a person showing sudden loss of responsiveness and no normal breathing.

Atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is where the heart can ‘flutter’ and race, and if unmedicated, can pose a risk of suffering a stroke. Symptoms can occur over hours, or days, and can be recurrent or permanent. Symptoms include heart palpitations or the sense of the heart racing, shortness of breath, dizziness, feeling weak or fatigued, and chest pain.

Acute coronary syndrome

Acute coronary syndrome is an umbrella term for all situations where blocked blood flow affects the heart, which often leads to a heart attack.


A stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks parts of the brain, the leading cause of disability worldwide. A helpful way to remember stroke symptoms is the acronym F.A.S.T.:

  • F - Face drooping, or numb, ask the person to smile
  • A - Arm weakness, or numb, ask the person to raise both arms
  • S - Speech difficulty, slurred, unable to speak, hard to understand, jumbled words - ask them to repeat a sentence, like ‘the sky is blue’
  • T - Time to call OOO - if the person shows any of these symptoms, even if they recover, get them to a hospital immediately - time is of the essence

Peripheral artery disease

Also called peripheral vascular disease, occurs when the narrowing of the arteries restricts blood flow to parts of the body other than the heart or brain, often to the periphery such as feet, toes, and legs. Symptoms therefore involve coldness, numbness or cramps in the legs or feet, colour changes on the legs, slow growth of toenails, and sores on the legs or feet that won’t heal.


Atherosclerosis is the most common cause of all of the above conditions, and results from a combination of the build-up of fatty plaques on the walls of arteries, and the hardening of the arteries. Those with mild atherosclerosis tend to have no symptoms. Symptoms normally become apparent once the arteries are quite blocked, and include chest pain or angina (pain upon exercise), pain, numbness, cramping or weakness in arms or legs, and high blood pressure. Left untreated, atherosclerosis can lead to a stroke.

Pericarditis and myocarditis

Pericarditis and myocarditis is inflammation of the muscle wall of the heart (myocardium) or the fluid filled sac surrounding the heart (pericardium) caused by a range of factors such as viruses (COVID-19), infection, vaccination, environmental toxins, chemotherapy, or radiation.

Symptoms of myocarditis include chest pain/pressure, shortness of breath, feeling lightheaded, fluid retention in extremities, and heart palpitations. Symptoms of pericarditis include sharp, stabbing pain worsened by coughing, swallowing or taking deep breaths, pain the back, beck or left shoulder, fatigue, dry cough, abnormal heart rhythm, and swelling in the feet or legs.

Cardiovascular disease causes

Atherosclerosis is the primary cause of cardiovascular diseases and can occur over decades, maybe even starting as early as childhood in some people. It is generally characterised by the progressive build up of fatty deposits, cholesterol, cellular debris, fibrin (a clotting factor in the blood), calcium and other substances forming a plaque. As plaque builds up, it thickens the wall of the blood vessel which narrows the inside of the vessel and reduces blood flow, the amount of oxygen and nutrient distribution to the body. This affects the periphery first and small vessels of the fingers, toes, kidneys, heart, brain, eyes and other organs.

Plaque that has formed inside vessels can pose a risk by pieces breaking off and blocking smaller vessels, and plaque in narrow arteries can lead to blood clots (thrombus), also cutting off blood supply. A blocked artery to the heart is called a heart attack, and to the brain is called a stroke, and when arteries to the extremities like the legs are blocked it can cause tissue death (gangrene).

Cardiovascular disease and inflammation

In most cases the underlying cause of cardiovascular disease is associated with systemic inflammation. The immune system initiates an inflammatory process in the body that doesn't resolve, and therefore becomes chronic. This inflammatory response can affect the function of the inner lining of your heart and blood vessels, making it increasingly more difficult for the heart to circulate the blood, and for oxygen and nutrients to move between the blood and the cells.  

Over time, the blood vessels lose their elasticity, become thicker, and atherosclerotic plaques begin to form in the walls of the arteries.  Free radicals build up in the cells and interfere with metabolism and cellular energy function, and this in turn begins to affect how different organs and tissues work leading to progressive cardiovascular and cardiometabolic dysfunction.

What causes eczema?


Research has found people with the ‘atopic triad’ have a defective barrier of the skin and upper and lower respiratory tracts.

These genetic alterations cause a loss of function of filaggrin (filament aggregating protein), which is a protein in the skin that normally breaks down to create natural moisturisation and protect the skin from penetration by pathogens and allergens.

Filaggrin mutations are found in approximately 30 percent of people with atopic dermatitis, and also predispose people to asthma, allergic rhinitis (hayfever), keratosis pilaris (dry rough patches and bumps on the skin), and ichthyosis vulgaris (a chronic condition which causes thick, dry, scaly skin.)If one parent carries this genetic alteration, there is a 50 percent chance their child will develop atopic symptoms. And that risk increases to 80 percent if both parents are affected. 

Food allergy and sensitivity

Food hypersensitivity has been found to cause or exacerbate atopic dermatitis in 10-30% of cases, and 90% of these are caused by eggs, milk, peanuts, soy and wheat.

Compromised gut health

The connection between the gut microbiome and skin health is complex, however, research has found the microbiota contributes to the development, persistence, and severity of atopic dermatitis through immunologic, metabolic and neuroendocrine pathways.

Nutritional deficiencies

Deficiency of Omega-6 essential fatty acids (EFA) has been linked with the increased incidence of atopic dermatitis, along with the inability for the body to efficiently metabolise EFA’s to gamma linoleic acids (GLA) and arachidonic acids (AA).

Weather and environment

Changing weather conditions can certainly aggravate eczema symptoms, but the triggers are subject to change among individuals.


Hormones also play a role in the course of atopic dermatitis, including the stress hormone cortisol which triggers an inflammatory immune response affecting all organs of the body, including the skin.

Mould exposure

Mould exposure and susceptibility to mould can cause Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS), of which dermatitis is a manifestation.

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What are the risk factors for cardiovascular disease?

Risk factors of cardiovascular disease include:

  • Smoking, which affects blood flow by increasing the stickiness of the blood cells, and reduces the bloods ability to carry oxygen. Impaired blood flow increases the likelihood of blockages, which is why smokers have double the risk of a heart attack than a non-smoker
  • Unhealthy diet / poor nutrition can leave the blood vessels without the building blocks to maintain health, elasticity and repair
  • Chronic stress can affect all aspects of health, can increase inflammation and heart rate, and contribute to worsening other risk factors
  • Dysregulation of blood sugar can damage blood vessels and cause the cells to become resistant to insulin leading to type 2 diabetes
  • Dysregulation of cholesterol such as high LDL cholesterol (in particular lipoprotein(a))and low HDL, which can oxidise and contribute to plaque build up
  • Diabetes (Type 1 and Type 2) - diabetics are twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease
  • High blood pressure which can overload the heart and blood vessels, and speed up atherosclerosis
  • Sedentary lifestyle can contribute negatively to all aspects of health, and increase other risk factors of cardiovascular disease
  • Being overweight or obese can contribute to risk factors and other health problems
  • Aging - more 25% of people over 75 have cardiovascular disease
  • Gender - men are slightly more at risk, however women are often under diagnosed. After menopause, the risk for women is almost the same as for men
  • Family history - there is an additional risk if you have a close family member such as a grandparent, parent or sibling with cardiovascular disease
  • Ethnicity - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are at higher risk
  • Environmental factors - such as environmental toxins, heavy metals, and biotoxins

Autoimmune disease and cardiovascular disease

A recent epidemiological study shows individuals with autoimmune disease have increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease. It is likely that increased levels of inflammation and damage due to altered immune responses and autoantibody attack may contribute to cardiovascular damage.

New research in 2021 and 2019 has found microbiome changes due to a diet high in red meat may be associated with higher levels of molecules trimethylamine N-oxide and phenylacetylglutamine, which have also been associated with cardiovascular disease.

Cardiovascular disease treatment - the conventional approach

Conventional medicine promotes the prevention of cardiovascular disease through education, heart health checks which are covered by Medicare and promotion of regular check ups with your GP.

Many programs and initiatives by the Heart Foundation, the Stroke Foundation, the National Health and Medical Research Council, and the Medical Research Future Fund are supporting research into the prevention of cardiovascular diseases.

At present, if you have an existing cardiovascular condition, your GP or cardiologist may recommend losing weight, quitting smoking and healthy eating, alongside pharmaceutical medicines that are usually prescribed long term.

Surgical and non-surgical procedures may be required, depending on the severity and type of your condition. Surgery includes open heart surgery, septal myectomy, valve replacements, or cardiac implantable devices to stimulate or regulate heart rhythm. In severe conditions, heart transplant surgery may be required.

Your GP / cardiologist may prescribe medications for:

  • Managing blood pressure - angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors (ACEI), angiotensin receptor blockers (ARB), beta blockers, or thiazide diuretics
  • Lowering cholesterol - lipid modifying statins, and maybe also ezetimibe, bile acid binding resins, nicotinic acid and fibrates
  • Antiplatelet agents for coronary heart disease e.g. aspirin, clopidogrel, prasugrel, ticagrelor, anticoagulants; warfarin, ACEI, ARB, beta blockers, statins, aldosterone antagonists, or short acting nitrates
  • Stroke - blood pressure lowering drugs such as ACEI, with or without a diuretic, anticoagulants such as long term low dose asprin, cholesterol lowering drugs, and diabetes management
  • Chronic heart failure - ACEI, beta blockers, aspirin, statins, ACEI or ARB, diuretics, aldosterone antagonists, digoxin, antiotensin II receptor antagonists, polyunsaturated fatty acids, direct sinus node inhibitors, iron, and other drugs
  • Metabolic conditions - metformin, insulin

Many of these medications are life saving, however all pharmaceutical medications have side effects, e.g. long term aspirin can cause damage to the lining of the stomach, which can cause gastric ulcers, it can alter the microbiome make up and diversity impacting all aspects of health. For this reason, many people are looking for natural ways to improve their cardiovascular health using the cardiovascular disease functional medicine approach, to reduce their risk factors, offset some of the adverse effects of their necessary medication and be generally healthier and feel well.

The cardiovascular disease functional medicine approach

The cardiovascular disease functional medicine approach is holistic, supportive and evidence based. Functional medicine cardiovascular specialist Mark Payne has 30 years of experience as a clinical health professional and educator, with a special interest in working with people to improve their cardiometabolic health.

Functional medicine starts with an in-depth case taking interview to ascertain the root cause and contributing factors of cardiovascular issues. As cardiovascular disease takes years to develop, it may stem from lifestyle, diet, or other factors such as health history, and might combine with a genetic predisposition.

Functional testing may assist in defining treatment priorities:

  • Analysis of blood tests for cardiovascular markers - high sensitivity C-reactive protein, homocysteine, cholesterol markers and fibrinogen
  • Blood sugar regulation - fasting glucose, insulin, Hba1C
  • Organic acids test - markers of cellular metabolism
  • Gut function testing - GI map, GI 360
  • Heart rate variability monitoring
  • Metabolomic studies show that specific markers of metabolism (small molecules which are by products of normal cell processes) can be particularly useful in identifying cardiovascular disease risk factors

A personalised treatment strategy will be designed tailored to your unique state of health and lifestyle, to optimise your health status. Australians looking for a natural treatment for heart disease benefit from addressing modifiable risk factors of cardiovascular disease to improve nutrition, to ensure that every part of the circulatory system is delivered what it needs to function optimally.

Strategies may include supplementation with nutrients such as coenzyme Q10, quercetin, liposomal glutathione, vitamin C, tocotrienols (Vitamin E) magnesium, zinc, chromium, Omega 3 fatty acids, selenium, and resveratrol.

Many people look to herbal medicine for the treatment of cardiovascular disease as they can help in a number of ways to strengthen heart health. Herbal medicines may help people with cardiovascular disease with improving the endothelial lining of all blood vessels, reducing inflammation, improving tone the heart and smooth muscle of veins and arteries. Herbs include hawthorn, motherwort, curcumin, horse chestnut, garlic, arginine, taurine, bromelain, dan shen, coleus, and Korean ginseng.

Herbal medicines to support blood flow to the circulatory system include ginkgo, hawthorn, gotu kola, cayenne, and ginger, and herbs and nutritional medicine to improve insulin sensitivity include lipoic acid, chromium, cinnamon, bitter melon, and goat’s rue.

Probably the biggest difference can be made in supporting healthy lifestyle changes to quit smoking (active and passive), increase daily movement and exercise, improve sleep, reduce alcohol, get regular exposure to the sun (on bare, unmoisturised skin) for Vitamin D and to manage weight and stress.

Dietary changes are equally important to optimising health, and studies have shown time and again that the most effective is the Mediterranean diet. Atherosclerosis risk factors can be reduced simply by adopting a diet of fresh, whole fruits and vegetables, high in healthy fats such as olives, nuts and oily wild-caught fish such as sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring (SMASH). High in fibre and low in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and highly processed oils, this diet can improve cholesterol, reduce blood pressure and improve insulin sensitivity.

These things are all reasonably well known, however, the difficult part often is in implementing and maintaining lifelong changes. This is where Melbourne Functional Medicine’s unique 6 month program can help. You’ll be partnered with a functional medicine practitioner and a health coach, who are there for you to guide and support you back to good health.

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See how functional medicine is helping our patients achieve better health and richer lives.

Are you ready for a personalised, natural functional medicine treatment? Our unique model of care was designed with you in mind. Find out how below, then book a call today.


Does exercise prevent atherosclerosis or cardiovascular disease?

Exercise is part of a number of strategies that can help improve cardiovascular health and prevent cardiovascular disease or atherosclerosis.

The right type of exercise will depend on your symptoms and circumstances. Whether it's a gentle daily walk (even better if it’s in nature), or resistance training, benefits can be gained to improve your blood vessel and heart health, and improve blood sugar regulation.

Seeking the support of a cardiovascular disease specialist like a functional medicine practitioner is a great way to start finding out how you may reverse atherosclerosis naturally.

Why does hypertension cause atherosclerosis? Why is hypertension a risk factor for atherosclerosis?

Hypertension puts pressure on both the heart and on the vessel walls, and over time this can cause the blood vessels to stiffen.

Stiff blood vessels are more easily damaged, and this damage can then accumulate plaques of calcium, lipids and other substances, a sign of atherosclerosis, that can break off and cause blood clots. 

Is atherosclerosis reversible? Can congestive heart failure be reversed naturally?

Improving the quality of your blood vessels can be possible by making lifestyle changes to correct modifiable risk factors of cardiovascular disease in Australia. 

By ensuring that:

  • healthy levels of necessary nutrients are consumed to supply the blood vessels with the building blocks to repair
  • the diet does not contain any foods that cause damage to the vessel walls, such as highly oxidised vegetable oils, refined carbohydrates, sugar, barbequed meats or fast foods
  • exercise, or daily movement is incorporated 
  • adequate hydration is maintained, of at least 2 L of filtered water each day
  • smoking and alcohol is reduced/ceased
  • weight loss if obese/overweight is undertaken safely
  • stress resilience strategies are used

What is the best diet for cardiovascular disease?

The Mediterranean diet has been shown consistently in scientific research to be the optimal diet for cardiovascular disease.

Atherosclerosis risk factors can be reduced simply by adopting a daily diet of fresh, whole fruits and vegetables, high in healthy fats such as olives, nuts and oily wild-caught fish such as sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring (SMASH).

High in fibre and low in sugar and refined carbohydrates, highly processed oils this diet can improve cholesterol, reduce blood pressure and improve insulin sensitivity.

Because the Meditteranean diet has been identified as the best diet for cardiovascular disease, practitioners of the cardiovascular disease functional medicine approach often recommend this diet as a firstline treatment. 

It should be noted that the traditional Mediterranean diets of the world have also incorporated enjoying food with friends and loved ones, laughing and having gratitude which in themselves can help to lower stress and reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors. 

What are 3 warning signs or symptoms of cardiovascular disease?

Sometimes, there are no signs or symptoms. If you have a family history, you are a smoker, have a poor diet, are overweight or obese, have hypertension, have had gestational diabetes, or diabetes type 1 or 2 then you are at risk of cardiovascular disease.

The symptoms, when they do occur, tend to develop after many years of cardiovascular disease, and can be different for men and women. In conditions involving the heart men, tend to experience:

  • Pain, or pressure in the chest
  • Discomfort or pain to the jaw, arms or back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness, feeling faint or light-headed
  • Cold sweats
  • Fatigue or nausea
  • Women may experience any of the above, have no symptoms or feel:
  • Pain in the jaw, throat or neck
  • Pain in the abdomen or back
  • Angina (heavy, dull or sharp chest pain or discomfort)
  • Dizziness, feeling faint, or light-headed
  • Nausea, vomiting, fatigue or shortness of breath

There are natural treatments to reduce your cardiovascular risk factors, so don’t wait for symptoms to occur if you identify yourself in the list of risk factors. See a functional medicine heart disease specialist and see how you can reverse cardiovascular disease risk factors to improve your health outlook.

Can’t find what you’re looking for? Reach out to the team directly – we’ll be happy to assist.