Inflammation and Cardiovascular Risks

By on April 18, 2012

Inflammation is Good for You?

It’s true—inflammation is generally a normal, healthy response of the body. It’s the body’s natural response to damage or irritants. Inflammation might kick in because of physical trauma, anything from a splinter to a broken bone. Or your body may react to your environment, such as an allergic response to inhaled pollen. Inflammation might happen when your body fights off invaders.

The overall goal of this “acute” inflammation process is to repair injured cells and destroy pathogens—to heal and defend. It typically lasts just a few hours or days, with three phases.

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First, the inflammation response activates. Cells in the affected area release a host of signaling molecules that work to dilate small blood vessels. More blood goes to the area, along with oxygen, nutrients, and immune cells. This can cause redness, warmth, pain, swelling, and loss of function.

The restore phase begins when the problem agent is removed. Tissue repair begins, and anti-inflammatory compounds including “resolvins” and “protectins” are produced. New cells and blood vessels are formed.

Finally, the system recovers in the crucial third phase. The area of injury or infection is healed and re-stabilized. Immune cells rebalance, and antioxidants are replenished. While the damage or irritant may be gone, your body needs to chemically “reload” in this final step. After the recovery phase—and only then—the body is optimally prepared to launch another inflammation cycle.

This inflammation response cycle is essential for maintaining health. But sometimes there are issues. Inflammation doesn’t always complete the cycle and let the body to return to a balanced, healthy state. The process can start skipping like a scratched DVD, re-activating again and again without moving on to recovery. This long-term irritation becomes “chronic” inflammation that can last for weeks or even months.

Experts are still learning why chronic inflammation occurs. During the normal cycle, immune cells release bursts of “reactive oxygen species”—or free radicals—to rid the body of damaged cells. It’s an important step. But after they’re done cleaning up damage, free radicals can start attacking the body’s own healthy cells. This type of “bystander” damage is called oxidative stress. Your body has the solution—antioxidants that act to quickly neutralize free radicals before oxidative stress begins. But when there aren’t enough antioxidants to scrub up free radicals, oxidative stress ensues. Oxidative stress causes cell damage, and the damage can restart the inflammatory process at “activate.” The result? A negative feedback loop—also known as a chronic inflammatory state.

What it comes down to is this: Inflammation is a normal response of the body. But if that response gets stuck on repeat, it may lead to health issues.

Is inflammation affecting how I age?

Did you know that common signs of aging—wrinkles, loosening skin, weight gain, aches and pains—may have a common cause in low-level chronic inflammation? To maintain health and vitality over the years, it may help to understand and address the body’s basic inflammation process.

Consider this: Part of the body’s normal and natural inflammation process is the release of “reactive oxygen species”—often called free radicals—that serve to clean up damaged cells in the body. Free radicals are important for healing, but they can also damage healthy “bystander” cells if they are not quickly neutralized in turn by antioxidants. This damage to healthy cells is called “oxidative stress” and can be a detriment to total body health and youthfulness. Ongoing free radical damage to DNA molecules and cell membranes can really add up over time.

Free radicals work by “stealing” electrons from cells—whether invaders or the body’s own healthy cells. Antioxidant molecules, for their part, work by donating electrons to free radicals without becoming unstable themselves. An imbalance of free radical molecules to antioxidants creates oxidative stress and can cause chronic inflammation as the free radicals continue their destruction in the body, unchecked.

So how can you protect your healthy cells and your DNA from free radical damage? With a steady supply of powerful antioxidants. Our bodies actually produce their own antioxidants, but this process slows and diminishes with age. Slowing antioxidant action means oxidative stress can start damaging tissues, even causing visible changes. These changes happen to be common signs of aging—wrinkles, loss of elasticity in the skin, feeling inflammation in the joints. Worse, there is possibly inflammation going on where it can’t be felt—in the heart, brain, blood vessels, breasts, prostate—in fact in most systems of the body.

The key to successful aging is to encourage a healthy inflammation response—the full cycle with free radical action balanced by antioxidant action and returning to stability. Protecting our cells from free radical damage can benefit the whole body, from cardiovascular health to bone health, joint health, and skin health. Avoiding DNA damage can even help us promote normal cell growth.

So while there is no “cure” for the natural process of aging, the conscious and active control of low-level “silent” inflammation is now believed to have the potential to slow down the aging process. Antioxidants and holistic lifestyle changes may be part of the key.

What it comes down to is this: Inflammation is a normal process of the body, but long-term inflammation can noticeably affect how you age. 

Is my diet contributing to ongoing inflammation?

Maybe you’ve been hearing lately about inflammation as ground zero for a multitude of health concerns. It’s been linked to heart health issues, brain health issues, and even to lower intelligence scores. Inflammation is generally a natural, self-limiting healing response that occurs when our bodies deal with damage, irritation or immune challengers. But inflammation can also persist at ongoing low levels because of what we put into our bodies every day—because of inflammatory foods.

Whether a food contributes to inflammation often has to do with the type of Omega fatty acids it contains. There are many types of Omegas, but Omega-3 fatty acid and Omega-6 fatty acid are particularly important. Put simply, Omega-6 fatty acids convert into molecules that can increase inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids can have an opposite, modulating effect. The ideal balance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio—likely the ratio maintained by our ancestors in past centuries. This fairly even ratio promotes a healthy balance of inflammation-sensitive molecules.

However, the typical western diet tends to be high in Omega-6s and low in Omega-3s, promoting a significant imbalance as high as 20:1! These Omegas-6s are in many foods, including factory-farmed red meat and refined corn, soybean, cottonseed, peanut, and safflower cooking oils. They’re also in many processed foods. A significant imbalance of Omega-6 fatty acids can lead to a persistent inflammation state.

Getting a better balance of Omegas is key to helping your body’s inflammation response stay healthy and balanced. More Omega-3s can help you achieve a more balanced ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6. Think of Omega-3s as “good fats” that can serve to balance out a surplus of inflammation-inducing chemicals. Omega-3s are also the building blocks for resolvins and protectins, chemicals released during the repair phase of the body’s inflammation response.

More antioxidants in your diet can have protective effects. Inflammation boosts free radicals in the body, which in turn can stress healthy cells and contribute to yet more inflammation. Antioxidants act to neutralize free radicals, allowing the body to complete a healthy inflammation response cycle and return to a stable state. Antioxidants are in pigment-rich fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries, apples, and pomegranates. They’re also present in herbs and spices such as turmeric, ginger, and rosemary. Getting more antioxidant-rich foods or supplements may help the body restore internal chemical balance and a healthy, modulated inflammation response.

What it comes down to is this: Inflammation has a lot of contributing factors. One we have the most control over is the type of foods we choose to eat. 

Inflammation and Cardiovascular Risk Factors

Heart health is a major concern in the United States for both men and women. There are many factors that contribute to your overall heart health and cardiovascular risk. Some of them, like heredity, can’t be controlled. Other risk factors can be addressed with healthy lifestyle changes. Not using tobacco is one example of a heart-healthy behavior. Getting enough physical activity is another. It’s also worth thinking about how your body is responding to inflammation.

When your body experiences damage or irritation, the natural immune system response involves inflammation. It’s usually a short-term cycle that may involve swelling and redness as blood and nutrients rush to the site. Free radical molecules are released to clean up damaged cells, and antioxidant molecules work to control free radicals from causing collateral damage to healthy “bystander” cells. As the inflammation response is completed, the body recovers its chemical balance—stocking up with adequate immune cells and antioxidants for next time.

Sometimes, though, the body is not able to recover and the inflammation response continues. Cellular damage leads to free radical response that leads to more cellular damage. The body’s system becomes unbalanced and lacks the resources to overcome and end the inflammation cycle. This can lead to chronic inflammation. Some common causes for this feedback loop? Smoking. A high-fat diet. Even dental issues can contribute to low-level yet persistent inflammation.

What’s concerning about chronic inflammation response is that it’s not typically something you feel, so you may be totally unaware of it. You notice when inflammation happens in areas rich in pain-sensitive nerve endings, such as joint tissues. You notice when inflammation response in the skin causes wrinkling and gradual loss of firmness. But how is an ongoing inflammation response affecting cells and systems you can’t see or feel—your blood vessels for example? With no significant pain-sensitive nerve endings in those areas, chronic inflammation may be present but “silent” for years.

This type of chronic inflammation is a cardiovascular risk factor. Cellular damage from free radicals can affect blood vessels and heart health. Physicians are now starting to test for this ongoing inflammation response by looking at levels of C-reactive protein in the blood. C-reactive protein is considered a marker for inflammation, and elevated levels indicate elevated cardiovascular risk according to the American Heart Association. Fortunately, there is something you can do to support cardiovascular health. You can support your body’s healthy inflammation response with natural antioxidants and holistic lifestyle changes.

What it comes down to is this: People who feel and seem healthy may still be at cardiovascular risk from low-level inflammation.

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Inflammation and Cardiovascular Risks