Chronic inflammation increases heart disease risk by making healthy diet and lifestyle changes

To help prevent heart disease and stroke, the American Heart Association advises lowering the risk factors that lead to inflammation.

Remember the last time you cut your finger? It became red, tender and swollen, didn’t it? That was inflammation. The body’s inflammatory response is an important part of the healing process. Temporary, or acute, inflammation sends blood and immune cells to the area of an injury or infection, killing invading organisms and speeding tissue repair. Even a sunburn is a visible sign of your body’s healing inflammation in action.

Temporary inflammation is a natural and healthy function of the immune system; chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is the immune system gone haywire. When the body’s healing and infection-eliminating mechanism is continually switched on as a result of lifestyle factors like obesity, a poor diet or relentless stress, the body remains in a state of continuous inflammation. This chronic inflammation wreaks havoc in the body and increases your chances of developing everything from allergies and hardening of the arteries to Alzheimer’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis. But since February is American Heart Month, lets focus on the risk to your heart.

For many years, researchers believed that coronary heart disease was all about cholesterol accumulating in arteries. Let enough fatty deposits build up on arterial walls and boom! heart attack. But it turns out that explanation is too simplistic. When we become sedentary and overweight, eat a diet high in sugar and omega-6 fatty acids, or live with constant stress, we provoke chronic inflammation in our blood vessels. This makes them extremely susceptible to injury, allowing so-called bad LDL cholesterol to enter small fissures in the vessel walls. This invasion by what the body sees as a foreign substance triggers more inflammation, more damage and more buildup of cholesterol. Eventually, a part of this blockage breaks free and causes a blood clot, or the accumulated cholesterol simply narrows the artery so much that circulation is stopped. The result is a stroke or heart attack.

Many scientists now believe that inflammation, not cholesterol or saturated fat, may be the critical underlying cause of heart disease, which kills nearly 600,000 Americans each year. It’s still important to make sure your cholesterol and blood pressure are in the normal range and to get them there if they’re not. But it may be even more important to exchange an inflammatory lifestyle for an anti-inflammatory lifestyle. The chart on the following pages will help you better understand the causes of inflammation, the risks of eating too many omega-6s and some ways to help support heart health through eating and lifestyle strategies.

The Causes
There’s no single cause for chronic inflammation.

Millions of Americans live an inflammation lifestyle that keeps the immune system on high alert. Some of its critical elements:

  • Cigarette smoking. Inhaling smoke triggers an immune response similar to that of a blood vessel injury. The resulting inflammatory compounds can lead to plaque deposits and narrowed vessels.
  • Periodontal disease. The American Academy of Periodontology states that nearly 75 percent of Americans are affected by this inflammatory disease, which can lead to serious teeth, gum and heart issues.
  • A diet high in sugars. Eating refined carbohydrates (sugar, white bread, French fries, etc.) wallops the body with inflammation-inducing proteins called cytokines.
  • Lack of exercise. Regular exercise reduces the levels of chemicals that induce inflammation.
  • Stress. Research at Carnegie Mellon University shows that surges in cortisol, a hormone associated with chronic stress, impair the body’s ability to regulate the inflammatory response.
  • Obesity. Fat cells produce lots of cytokines and other pro-inflammatory proteins. So when you’re carrying too much body fat, your tissues are flooded with chemicals that cause inflammation.

Food Strategies

Ready to eat an anti-inflammation diet? Getting more anti-inflammatory omega-3s in your diet while cutting way back on foods made with corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean and cotton seed oils is one of the most effective ways to reduce chronic inflammation. It’s also pretty easy to do. Since most of those oils are found in highly processed foods, such as commercial baked goods, limit processed foods and instead build your diet around fresh, whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins like poultry and fish. Here are some of the foods you’ll want on your shopping list:

  • Turmeric. This herb, which gives curry its yellow color, is known for its anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Wild Alaskan salmon. Wild varieties have higher omega-3 levels than farmed.
  • Green tea. Its antioxidant flavonoids have been shown to be inflammation suppressors.
  • Broccoli. This vegetable contains plenty of anti-inflammatory sulforaphanes.
  • Extra virgin olive oil. EVOO is packed with polyphenols and healthy monounsaturated fats.
  • Blueberries. Like blackberries, strawberries, cranberries and raspberries, these sweet beauties are one of the best dietary antioxidant sources.

The Omega-6 Impact

Perhaps the most dangerous factor behind the inflammation lifestyle is our over consumption of omega-6 fatty acids. Like their cousins, omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6s are important for things like brain health, bone health, and skin and hair growth. But whileomega-3s reduce inflammation, consuming too many of the wrong kinds of omega-6s actually increases inflammation and that’s a problem.

Here’s why its such a big issue:

  • Americans eat far too many omega-6 fatty acids. In fact, the University of Maryland Medical Center states that the typical American diet generally contains 14 to 25 times more omega-6s than omega-3s, a number substantially higher than the suggested 2-to-1 ratio. Processed foods, a staple in many diets, are a large part of the problem. By consuming massive amounts of processed food made with omega-6-rich corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean and cottonseed oils, we wreck the omega-3/omega-6 balance that’s essential for good health.
  • Eating too many omega-6s can cause inflammation, which can lead to heart disease and other health issues.
    A nationwide inflammation epidemic is linked to many of our most serious chronic health problems: heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, depression and cancer. Inflammation can also lead to health issues like artery-blocking blood clots, damaged brain cells and heart valves, and diseases like asthma and irritable bowel syndrome.

Lifestyle Strategies

Because inflammation is largely a product of our modern lifestyle, smarter lifestyle choices can help change the inflammation equation in our favor. In addition to eating a healthy diet, here are some other parts of the anti-inflammatory equation to consider:

  • Exercise. Exercise might actually bring on short-term inflammation a swollen knee after a run, for instance. However, regular workouts reduce levels of inflammatory chemicals. Exercise can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which is crucial for preventing inflammation.
  • Quit smoking. Quitting lets your body purge your cardiovascular system of inflammatory compounds.
  • Find ways to manage stress. The usual ways of dealing with it like overeating or drinking too much just exacerbate the problem. Try an alternative like yoga, which research shows actually reduces inflammation while improving mood. Deep breathing, meditation and exercise can also mitigate the stress response.

The New Math

The healthy new equation you need to know for an anti-inflammatory lifestyle.
That means that instead of eating 20 times as many omega-6 fatty acids as omega-3 fatty acids (as the typical American does), you should aim for a ratio of about 2-to-1. Doing so will restore balance to your omega-6/omega-3 levels while also providing your body with more disease-fighting antioxidants and phytonutrients.

The anti-inflammatory lifestyle isn’t just about putting out the inflammation fire to help prevent heart disease and other serious health issues. When you eat a diet rich in whole foods, exercise more, control your weight and keep stress low, you look and feel better. You support the well-being of your entire body. But most of all, you give yourself the opportunity to live a life filled with vitality and health. And that’s what it’s all about.

Dr. Andrew Myers is an expert in nutrition and preventive medicine and the co-author of Health Is Wealth: 10 Power Nutrients That Increase Your Odds of Living to 100 and Health Is Wealth: Performance Nutrition. for more information.