Courtesy Centennial Health, written by Elizabeth Millard
Inflammation can cause problems throughout your entire body, and unfortunately, your cardiovascular system isn’t an exception. Certain conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol can create an inflammatory response and that, in turn, can affect the heart by causing plaque buildup in the coronary arteries, says Hunter Kirkland, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon at Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgeons in Austin, Texas. As that plaque increases, it decreases blood flow to the heart muscle, putting you at higher risk for a cardiovascular event like a heart attack or stroke. “These conditions put stress on the arterial walls, which leads to the inflammation,” he says. “Then, as inflammation increases, the issue can get worse.”
Even if you don’t have those chronic conditions, inflammation may be elevated from other causes, and it would have the same effect of narrowing your coronary arteries, says Boston based William Li, MD, president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation and author of Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. As if that wasn’t bad enough, “the inflammatory cells that gather around plaques release enzymes and cytokines that cause further damage to the lining, creating more inflammation and damage,” Li says.
Although conditions like diabetes can worsen inflammation, there are also genetic and lifestyle factors to consider, says Kirkland. “Genetics may determine how much cholesterol you have and can tip you toward having high blood pressure,” he notes. Lifestyle factors such as smoking, sedentary behavior and poor diet also set you up for problems with heart disease and inflammation, Kirkland adds. Unfortunately, these unhealthy habits can add up. People who smoke are more likely to have a poor diet and are also more likely to be sedentary. That can be especially tough on the heart. And if you’re genetically prone toward high blood pressure, but also smoke, don’t exercise, and have childhood trauma and chronic stress, all of that can keep your inflammation elevated too, says David Hanscom, MD, a former orthopedic surgeon in Seattle who now focuses on pain management through methods like meditation and exercise.
“You can lower inflammation to some degree with diet and exercise, but it also helps to understand how all these other issues may be affecting you,” he says. “You can eat an anti-inflammatory diet, but if you’re always angry and stressed, the inflammation will still win.”
It might be impossible to know every factor for inflammation and heart risk that’s affecting you personally, but taking time to consider both the physical and mental perspectives is valuable.
“Your heart health is affected by emotional difficulties, and those can drive up inflammation throughout your body,” says Hanscom. “You have to realize that just putting a couple lifestyle habits into place may not be enough. It’s a good start, but you need to keep uncovering these potential inflammation triggers to keep your heart healthy.”
Tune Up Your Ticker
Cutting back on sodium and saturated fat and getting consistent exercise are essential, but as Hanscom says, that’s just a starting point. Here are some other tactics that can help:
Lower Stress Levels with Quick Tension Tamers
Watch a funny video, water your houseplants, play with your pet. All of these have an immediate effect on lowering stress, says Hanscom.
Acknowledge and Address Emotional Trauma
That may mean seeking out therapy or other types of support.
See Your Doc
Both blood pressure and cholesterol can be elevated without any symptoms, says Kirkland. In addition, a high sensitivity C-reactive protein test (hs-CRP) can indicate if there’s inflammation present. Controlling heart disease risk can lower inflammation, so your doctor may advise you to take statins or blood pressure meds and can assess your overall cardiovascular disease risk factors.
Get Good Z’s
Insomnia has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and hormonal shifts that can negatively impact your weight. In addition, good sleep has a positive ripple effect on other heart health factors.
Up the Anti-Inflammatories
Food, that is. “In general, eating more plant-based options with high fiber, nuts, whole grains and legumes are protective for heart health,” Li says. “They can even reverse coronary plaques.” It’s hard to know how much inflammation is affecting your heart, says Bindiya Gandhi, MD, an Atlanta-based functional medicine physician. Most doctors won’t test for inflammatory markers since they don’t pinpoint the source of the problem. With the changes here, you’re covering all your bases and setting up your ticker for many more good years to come.