What’s the best way of telling if you are at a raised risk of heart disease? Most people would probably say their cholesterol level, because too much can block your arteries.
But this relentless focus on cholesterol could mean that we are missing out on the wider picture – and more effective, cheaper ways of protecting ourselves (without the risk of side-effects from drugs).
We all know that old age, smoking, raised blood pressure, lack of exercise and poor diet are significant – but what’s not so familiar is that these factors are linked. And that link is inflammation.
Inflammation in itself is not a bad thing – its associated swelling, redness and pain show that your body is working hard to ward off a threat – inflammation is why you don’t die from a cut finger or a bacterial infection.
However, chronic inflammation makes heart disease more likely by damaging the lining of blood vessels.
his, in turn, lowers production of the nitric oxide that keeps blood vessels flexible; when that happens there is a raised risk of high blood pressure. Damage to the vessel lining also makes it easier for fatty deposits to build up – these can later break away and cause strokes and heart attacks.
Smoking, lack of exercise and a poor diet all keep inflammation going.
Scientists have known for years that long-term inflammation is a feature of most chronic diseases, including arthritis, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, and Alzheimer’s; heart disease is no exception.
There’s a simple blood test that tells you if you’ve got a high level of inflammation – it checks for CRP (c-reactive protein). So could a CRP test help you protect yourself more effectively against heart disease than knowing your cholesterol levels?
‘CRP is far from perfect as a biomarker, but I think it is probably a useful warning that you have early signs of disease,’ says Dr. Ian Graham, professor of epidemiology and public health at the Royal College of Surgeons, and a cardiologist at Trinity College, Dublin. ‘Knowing about it could encourage people to start taking better care of their health earlier. Having your levels tested certainly makes sense.’
This would mean you could treat inflammation before it allowed the furring up of your arteries. Being aware of inflammation also brings the focus of fighting heart disease back to lifestyle measures instead of drugs.
How to beat inflammation
So how do you go about beating inflammation?
Losing weight helps because the extra fat you’re carrying around your belly isn’t just a storage depot; some of the chemicals it produces cause inflammation. Cutting out sugar and refined carbohydrates from your diet also reduces inflammation because high levels of blood glucose and the extra insulin it triggers can inflame and damage arteries. Avoid the super refined mealie meal you can buy in the shops and opt for the roughly ground meal that you can buy straight from the mills. This will have more sustenance in it and will be better for you and your family.
Making sure you get a good daily intake of omega 3 fatty acids is a way of damping down the inflammatory response. One trial reported in the summer found that fish oils reduced the risk of patients with heart failure dying or being hospitalised by nine per cent.
Many of the ways inflammation and heart disease tie up are still controversial and more research is certainly needed. ‘Inflammation is a key player in events triggering a heart attack and also in setting the conditions that lead up to it,’ says Professor Peter Weissberg medical director of the British Heart Foundation.
Finally, there is another vitamin that is emerging as a leading player in the fight against inflammation.
‘We could all do with more vitamin D,’ says Dr Oliver Gillie, one of the leading authorities on it in the UK.
We now know it’s not just used for building bones. It’s involved in many processes, including boosting production of chemicals that calm down inflammation and cutting back on the pro-inflammatory ones.’Post published in: Analysis