If you follow medical news or have seen your doctor lately you have probably heard the buzzword “inflammation” or read articles on anti-inflammatory diets. So, what is the big deal with inflammation and why should you care? Well, the link between inflammation and heart disease is becoming impossible to ignore. But what exactly is inflammation and what can you do about it?
What is Inflammation?
Inflammation alone is not a bad thing. In fact, inflammation is a response to a healthy and normal bodily process. Inflammation helps your body defend itself against pathogens such as viruses and bacteria.
For example, when your nose is all stuffed up from a cold with mucus, or when you get a scrape and it scabs over…that is part of the inflammatory response. It is a good thing! In this case, the mucus is washing the virus away from your nose and sinuses and the red swelling and scabbing is fighting any bacteria that could’ve entered when your skin was broken.
But when inflammation sticks around for longer periods…that’s when issues start to arise.
The Issue with Chronic Inflammation
So, what happens when inflammation becomes chronic, meaning that those inflammatory responses never really shut down?
When your body is constantly exposed to inflammatory triggers, it can cause systemic inflammation day after day. A healthy inflammation response in the body is supposed to be acute. Inflammation normally flares up, then it dissipates.
However, when inflammation is elevated on a daily basis, it causes dysfunction throughout your entire body and your heart health is no exception.
The Link Between Inflammation and Heart Disease
Studies suggest that chronic inflammation plays a significant role in the risk for cardiovascular disease and almost every other major chronic disease. When it comes to your heart health, decreasing chronic inflammation results in a reduced risk of recurrent heart attacks, strokes, and even cardiovascular death.
How do you know if you have underlying chronic inflammation?
The real problem with chronic inflammation is that most times, people don’t feel it or see it. Maybe your current symptoms are a result of inflammation, but in reality, your symptoms could be a manifestation of numerous underlying imbalances or dysfunctions.
So, unless you get evaluated by a doctor using specific lab testing, it’s not that easy to detect it (1) if you have inflammation and (2) if your symptoms are from the inflammation or from other imbalances. This is because chronic inflammation doesn’t show the classic physical signs that acute inflammation does (like that mucus in your nose that we were talking about before).
This is why the best approach to keep your inflammation at bay is prevention, being proactive, and maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Integrative & Functional Medicine Gets to the Root of Inflammation
One of the main missions of Integrative and Functional Medicine providers is to empower their patients to know and lower their risks of chronic inflammation. Our approach here at Integrative Medicine of Arizona is to use conventional and innovative lab testing to discover the root cause of your health issues that could be causing chronic inflammation. This way we can provide early intervention to reduce your risk of developing a chronic disease like heart disease.
The following list includes specific lab tests that your Integrative and Functional Medicine doctor can use to get an insight into the levels of inflammation in your body:
- CRP (C Reactive Protein)– This biomarker rises in response to systemic inflammation. Multiple large-scale prospective studies have shown how CRP can be used to predict adverse cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction, ischemic stroke, and sudden cardiac death.
- Homocysteine – This is an amino acid that causes your body to lay down sticky platelets in blood vessels, increasing heart disease risk.
- Lp(a) (Lipoprotein a)– inflames the blood and makes it “sticky”—making it more prone to clotting.
- Lp-PLA2 (Lipoprotein-associated phospholipase A2) – plays an important role in plaque formation and rupture.
- Anti-inflammatory Lipid Panel– helps to identify risk for future cardiovascular (CV) disease and monitor anti-inflammatory treatment.
- Tests for Metabolic Syndrome: This is a cluster of conditions that occur together that increase your risk for heart disease.
- Fasting blood sugar – this checks your level of glucose in the blood after at least 10 hours of fasting. Elevated levels are associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases.
HgbA1C (Hemoglobin A1C) – represents average blood sugar over a 3-month period.
- Fasting Insulin – regulates blood glucose levels, high levels indicate insulin resistance and risk for diabetes and heart disease.
What causes underlying chronic inflammation?
Chronic inflammation is often linked with something that causes an imbalance in your overall health. A variety of things can cause chronic inflammation, including:
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Toxin exposure
- Chronic infections, such as Lyme’s Disease
- Poor dental health, gingivitis
- Major physical trauma, such as car accident
- Chronic Stress
- Unhealthy diet filled with processed foods
- An imbalance in your gut microbiota (leaky gut, infections, dysbiosis)
- High blood pressure
- Autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes
- Trauma (childhood trauma, family death, mental or physical abuse)
How can you lower chronic inflammation and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease?
Some of the risk factors are outside of your control, but there is a lot that you can control to decrease chronic inflammation and lower the risk of heart disease, strokes, and heart attacks. It all comes down to lifestyle choices and behaviors!
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. You may know that foods like sugar, corn oil, and trans fats promote inflammation. But did you know dairy, gluten, and alcohol can also contribute to your inflammation?
To control inflammation, research has shown that the Mediterranean Diet can protect against the development of heart disease, metabolic complications, type-2 diabetes, and obesity. These are all diseases that are driven by inflammation.
By eating an anti-inflammatory diet you can help promote your longevity and health. In fact, those who followed a Mediterranean Diet had a 50%-70% lower risk of recurrent heart disease compared with those who followed a regular Standard American Diet? Time to start eating more vegetables, fruits, and grains!
- Daily Movement. Exercise is not only good for reducing inflammation, but it also improves blood flow, brings more oxygen to your cells, manages your blood sugar levels, and helps your body and mind relax leading to restful sleep. *Be sure not to overdo it though! Overexercising can actually lead to more inflammation. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.
- Prioritize Sleep. When you don’t get enough sleep, your inflammatory levels increase and your body can’t reset itself. It is ideal to get between 7.5-8 hours of quality sleep a night.
To help you achieve this, set up a nightly routine where you turn screens off (including your phone), dim the lights, read a book, or do a simple yin yoga or meditation session before bed.
- Reduce & Manage Stress: It’s important to practice mindfulness, self-care, and meditate daily even if it’s for 10 minutes a day! Just a few minutes a day of breathing and clearing your mind can do wonders for your stress levels.
- Take Supplements. Omega 3 fatty acids, turmeric, quercetin, Boswellia have been shown to reduce inflammation in the body. Functional lab testing can even reveal if you are lacking specific nutrients so personalized supplementation may be recommended by your provider.
Keep in mind that some of these changes don’t happen overnight. But working on them every day can help you achieve a healthy lifestyle for a healthy heart, longevity, and happiness!
Remember that chronic inflammation can be silent and invisible. But you can start taking the steps today to lower it and reduce your risk of developing heart disease.
Contact Us to Find Out Your Risk for Inflammation and Heart Disease
If you are worried you might have underlying chronic inflammation, contact us at Integrative Medicine of Arizona to make an appointment and receive the necessary blood tests and a personalized plan to get your body healthy. It’s never too late to start, especially when it comes to your heart!
Dr. Cheri Dersam
Dr. Dersam is board certified in both Integrative and Emergency Medicine and fellowship trained in Functional Medicine. Dr. Dersam focuses on a personalized approach that empowers each patient to achieve optimal health in mind, body and spirit.