Inflammation is a natural body process to help your immune system fight off incoming physical, viral or bacterial threats. But when the inflammation process doesn’t shut off, that’s a big problem.
Chronic inflammation causes or worsens a number of both common and debilitating diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s Disease.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that chronic inflammation also plays a big part in heart disease, which kills one in four Americans each year.
What is chronic inflammation?
When you injure yourself or when you’re fighting off bacteria or a virus, your cells release cytokines. These cytokines temporarily make the blood vessels more permeable. This is so that white blood cells can enter into the blood, travel to the damaged part of the body and work their magic.
White blood cells are needed to kill off invading viruses or bacteria, as well as to protect a scraped knee to protect the wound from infection. The problem is when the inflammation process doesn’t shut back down again. This is called chronic inflammation.
With chronic inflammation, the blood vessels remain more penetrable, to some degree, at all times. This allows fat, cholesterol, and other substances to enter the blood vessel walls. Over time, these deposits clump together and form a hard plaque which sticks to the blood vessel wall.
How does chronic inflammation lead to heart disease?
By allowing plaque to form in the blood vessel walls, chronic inflammation hardens the blood vessel walls, and causes them to narrow. Coronary heart disease occurs when the arteries in the heart have narrowed so much that the heart can no longer function well.
Even when the plaque doesn’t narrow the blood vessels significantly, however, it can still lead to a heart attack. Additionally, when the immune system attacks plaques, it can cause a blood clot. That blood clot can then cause a heart attack or stroke.
Why does chronic inflammation happen?
Now that you understand what chronic inflammation is, and why it’s so terrible for the heart, let’s look at what causes it.
The biggest contributor is diet. Fat cells, especially those around the belly, are ‘active’. They release the same cytokines mentioned earlier – the ones that induce an inflammatory response. So foods that are high in saturated fat and carbohydrates (which are stored as fat) contribute greatly to internal inflammation.
Diet isn’t the only factor. Stress, a lack of exercise, smoking and the natural aging process all contribute to chronic inflammation.
As we age, we accumulate more pro-inflammatory cytokines in the body. There is debate in the science community around why this happens, but there’s no debate that chronic inflammation increases with age. For this reason, it’s especially important to be vigilant about diet and exercise as we get older.
How to prevent and reduce chronic inflammation
1. Find out your risk
Knowing that you have chronic inflammation, and how bad it is, will motivate you to target your inflammation. For those concerned about inflammation and heart disease, the Lp-PLA2 (PLAC) biomarker test can help. The Lp-PLA2 enzyme is found in plaques that build up in the blood vessel wall. High levels of this enzyme reveal high levels of inflammation, and that means a high risk of heart disease, as well as heart attacks and stroke.
When we exercise, our body produces hormones that suppress the immune system’s production of inflammation-causing cytokines. One study found that just 20 minutes of exercise a day resulted in a significant reduction of cytokines in the bloodstream. And you don’t need to do a boot camp class. Moderate exercise, such as a light jog or cycle, is sufficient. The American Heart Association recommends that everyone get at least 150 minutes per week, which works out to just over 20 minutes a day.
3. Reduce sugars, saturated fat and processed food
Eating an unhealthy diet can increase your risk of chronic inflammation. Diets that are high in processed food, fried foods, sugars and saturated fats lead to more fat cells and more cytokines.
One study published last year followed more than 200,000 people and found that those who ate diets high in processed food, saturated fats and added sugars were 46% more likely to have heart disease.
4. Up your antioxidant intake
While eating a fat- and sugar-heavy diet increases the inflammation in your body, healthy foods can have the opposite effect – they suppress the body's inflammatory process. Antioxidants discourage the overproduction of cytokines. They’re found in colourful fruits and vegetables like berries, broccoli and spinach. Green tea and spices like turmeric and ginger are also high in antioxidants.
5. Get more omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to produce chemicals in the body that are needed to ‘turn off’ an overactive inflammatory response. It remains in question whether omega-3 supplements have the benefit that foods do, as they’re digested differently. So to be safe, focus on getting your omega-3s in your diet. The Mediterranean diet is a good one to try, as it’s high in foods that are omega-3-rich, including fish, avocados and olive oil.
6. Quit smoking
Smoking damages your blood vessels and allows more plaques to be deposited in the blood vessel walls. Studies show that by quitting smoking, you reduce your risk of heart disease risk by half. If you smoke, quitting is the single-most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease.
7. Reduce your stress levels
The stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline trigger the body to release more cytokines. This is why chronic stress leads to chronic inflammation.
Studies show that meditation, walks, getting adequate sleep, exercising and leaning on supportive friends are all highly effective ways to counter stress.
8. Talk to your doctor about anti-inflammatory medication
If you have high levels of inflammation, which you can determine through the LpPLA2 test, it can take many months for lifestyle modifications to significantly reduce the chronic inflammation in your body.
An anti-inflammatory drug, such as canakinumab, can help reduce your risk of heart disease while you work at getting your lifestyle back on track. One recent major study found that people who had previously had a heart attack and took the ant-inflammatory drug reduced their risk of a subsequent heart attack by 15%.
Take back your health by targeting inflammation
Chronic inflammation is very common and a top driver of disease in the U.S. With the exception of autoimmune disorders, chronic inflammation is reversible over time.
By making an effort to reduce your stress, exercise, eat healthy and quit smoking, you can reduce the cytokine activity in your body and give your blood vessels time to heal. You’ll know your efforts have been worthwhile when you see the change in your Lp-PLA2 inflammation test.
But your reward isn’t the momentary pride you feel by addressing your chronic inflammation. It’s all the healthy years you’ll add to your life.