Did you know that blood vessels can “talk?” That’s right: Changes in the cells within blood vessels can communicate important information about the overall health of the cardiovascular system. The inside of blood vessels are lined endothelial cells—protective cells that form a tight barrier through which only certain substances such as water or glucose can enter. Endothelial cells also make many substances that keep the vessels healthy so that the heart can effectively pump blood to all of the tissues and organs. While strong, endothelial cells are also sensitive to changes or inflammation within the body. So, if the cells become damaged or stop functioning properly, it can indicate that there is a problem occurring elsewhere in the body.
Tuning in to the messages that blood vessels can reveal what’s going on inside our bodies, not just what’s happening within the vessels themselves. For example, vessels can expose the effects of obesity and can help scientists discover links between body composition and the body’s response to food and sugar intake.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers measured the endothelial function of teens ages 12–19 years for clues into the relationship between obesity and how the body handled sugar. By conducting the study in teenagers with a wide range of body compositions—from normal weight to obese—they were able to make conclusions about blood vessel health, how it relates to obesity, and how obesity contributes to the development of problems in the body’s ability to handle sugar properly. They found that obese young people had higher levels of endothelial cell damage that correlated with the body’s inability to handle sugar. Indeed, in this example, the endothelial cells in the vessels “spoke” to the researchers about the health of the study participants.
This study also underscores the importance of preventing childhood obesity, which has been linked to a reduction in the body’s ability to regulate the amount of sugar in the blood. Limiting the intake of processed, high-sugar food and drinks is a great start. The second step is to increase physical activity during childhood and adolescent years. These habits, when started early, may carry into adulthood and lead to a healthier life. September is Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. Find more tips for helping kids maintain a healthy weight on the CDC website.
Audrey A. Vasauskas, PhD, is an associate professor of physiology at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine. She is a former volunteer editor for the I Spy Physiology blog.