Harvard Heart Letter

Angina in the intestines mirrors what happens in the heart

Clogged gut arteries can cause pain—and much worse.

The heart's arteries are common hiding places for cholesterol-filled plaque and blood clots. Plaque can limit blood flow during exercise or stress, causing the chest pain or pressure known as angina. Clots can completely block blood flow, causing a heart attack or cardiac arrest. These two perpetrators can do similar things elsewhere in the body. When they interfere with blood flow to the digestive system, the effects can range from a stomachache after every meal to a life threatening emergency.

A chronic problem

The digestive system ordinarily gets 20% to 25% of the oxygenated blood pumped out by the heart. After eating, though, blood flow to the stomach and intestines almost doubles. In a healthy person, the heart, the digestive system, and the rest of the body handle this without missing a beat.

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