What is Inflammation

Inflammation is a part of the body’s immune system response to injury or illness. For example, if you get sick, like a cold or a sinus infection, the body mounts a measurable inflammatory response to help your body fight the infection and to facilitate healing.

Acute rises in inflammation are necessary for survival; however, low-grade chronic inflammation can be problematic from the persistent irritation that occurs in the blood vessels. The science seems to point to Inflammation as a causal role in the development of plaque in our arteries and that is plays a direct role in triggering adverse cardiovascular events, like heart attacks and strokes.

The Science That Points to Inflammation

More than 20 years ago, scientists discovered that inflammation was associated with an increased risk of having a heart attack or a stroke. But for years, there wasn’t clear evidence that anti-inflammatory treatments could reduce the risk for a heart attack or stroke, until about 2008. There was a research study called the JUPITER Trial, which showed that reducing inflammation, even if cholesterol was normal, was very important in reducing the incidence of adverse events. 

In 2017, a landmark research study, CANTOS, was published that showed that targeting inflammation, without changing cholesterol levels, can have a significant impact in reducing adverse cardiovascular events. This trial looked at the use of an injectable, anti-inflammatory, drug for people who had suffered a previous heart attack and still had persistent elevations in inflammation, despite the use of other medications.

The Role of Inflammation in Heart Disease

There are a handful of factors that play a role in the development of atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup in the arteries, that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Cholesterol is typically blamed but it’s only a small player. Cholesterol is necessary for plaque to develop, but it’s not sufficient all by itself. The other triggering factors, that can all be measured by particular labs, are general and specific inflammatory biomarkers, the health of the lining of the blood vessels, and blood sugar levels.

What You Can do Now

First-line, diet and lifestyle changes, can have a more profound and more long-lasting effect than many medications. Some of the most simple first-line approaches that anyone can take to reduce inflammation, and reduce their risk are:

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet: Consume a diet of whole foods, with an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, avoid red meat and other sources of saturated fat (e.g,. coconut oil, high-fat dairy). 
  • Increase physical activity: Break a sweat for more than 20 minutes each day. Guidelines from different medical associations suggest anywhere from 150-300 minutes per week of physical activity is most beneficial. 
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Weight gain, particularly around the midsection, is one of the most predictive indicators for a condition called insulin resistance (IR). Insulin resistance is allegedly the culprit in 70% of heart attacks and most stroke.
  • Quit smoking; smoking damages your blood vessels and promotes plaque buildup. Quitting smoking can cut your risk of heart disease in half.