Like rain freezing into hail or snow, cholesterol can solidify—except that it can do it at 37 degrees in your arteries.

The problem with these cholesterol crystals, according to new research from Michigan State University recently published in the American Journal of Cardiology, is that they can expand and burst through plaque and artery walls causing a heart attack.

From previous research, doctors knew that cholesterol could form plaque and cause inflammation, both of which are hard on arteries and the heart. In the new study, researchers analysed the material blocking the coronary arteries of 240 heart attack patients and discovered that almost all of the plaque contained these crystals; in some of the patients the amount of crystals was substantial.

“We collected this debris material and found extensive amount of crystals in 89 percent of cases,” said lead study author George Abela, MD, professor and chief of the Division of Cardiology at Michigan State University.

The reason the crystals hadn’t been spotted before is that when investigators used alcohol to process arteries for analysis, it would dissolve the crystals.

Dr. Abela notes that this may help explain why drinking alcohol in moderation may protect the heart: Some research suggests that moderate drinking can cut heart attack risk by 30 to 50 percent; it may have other disease-fighting benefits, as well. “Also, we observed that individuals using statin medications and aspirin can dissolve the crystals and that can be very helpful,” he told The Independent. Future treatments could focus on other ways to dissolve the crystals to prevent cardiovascular events,” said Dr. Abela. But for now, the best way to prevent cholesterol crystals from forming is to lower your serum cholesterol levels through proper diet and exercise.

Right now, it’s impossible to know if the crystals are forming in plaque without using invasive procedures. In the meantime more research needs to be done to figure out how these suckers form so that it can help scientists and the medical community improve methods of detection.

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