Heart health and inflammation – you might not have thought that these two are all that connected to each other. But scientists have learned that long-term, persistent inflammation in the body can actually lead to heart disease (and potentially fatal coronary events such as heart attacks).
That’s why it’s important to check for inflammation in your body if you’re concerned about your heart health.
Keep reading to discover what inflammation is – and how it can lead to heart disease.
What is inflammation?
Picture this: you’ve just slammed a door against your index finger, causing an unfortunate cut. Almost instantly, your finger will experience swelling, redness, and heat – along with a good deal of pain, of course.
These are all signs of acute, or short-lasting, inflammation – a defensive response by the body that helps ward off bacterial and viral invaders that might make their way through a cut on your skin. Swelling, for instance, occurs because your capillaries near the wound on your finger expand – or dilate – as the bloodstream rushes vast numbers of protective immune cells to the area.
Inflammation, though, isn’t always short-term. Sometimes, inflammation can be chronic – persisting for weeks, months, and even years. That might happen if your immune system can’t successfully beat back an invading army of bacteria or viruses – or if you have an autoimmune disorder in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your body’s own cells and tissues.
Inflammation can also arise as a result of environmental exposures to chemicals like pesticides (or even chemicals found in some cosmetics), emotional and physical stress, certain behaviors like smoking (or living with someone who smokes), and consumption of processed foods and refined sugars.
Chronic inflammation – unlike acute inflammation – is almost always a bad thing for the body. For example, chronic inflammation is often the culprit behind cancer and contributes to the development of type 2 diabetes.
And these are only a couple of examples of the negative impact chronic inflammation can have on one’s health. What many people don’t know is that chronic inflammation is also frequently involved in heart disease.
How chronic inflammation can lead to heart disease
How can chronic inflammation lead to heart disease? To answer that question, let’s take a look at the most common form of heart disease – coronary artery disease (which also happens to be the main cause of death worldwide).
Coronary artery disease occurs when plaque gums up the walls of the arteries, restricting the flow of blood to the heart. Plaque is a waxy substance consisting of fat, LDL cholesterol (or “bad cholesterol”), calcium, and other compounds that exist in the bloodstream.
Plaque has a somewhat specific structure when its stuck to the walls of an artery. The inner core of a “glob” of plaque is made up of tightly-packed, fat-filled cells and fat droplets. Layered on top of this core is a relatively rigid “cap” composed of fibrous protein molecules.
Now, imagine that someone’s arteries are lined with a fair amount of plaque. The flow of blood to the heart might be somewhat restricted, but it’s not severe enough to cause a major coronary event like heart failure.
This situation can change drastically, however, if chronic inflammation exists in that person’s body.
Why? Because when chronic inflammation is present in the body – caused, perhaps, by too much stress in your body – then the bloodstream is filled with molecules involved in the inflammatory response. Some of these molecules are able to biochemically “slice apart” harmful particles (like bacteria). However, that also means that these inflammatory molecules can rip away the firm “cap” of a plaque structure. This effectively “pops” or ruptures the plaque structure, and all the debris beneath the cap spills out – which can seal off the artery entirely and swiftly halt the flow of blood to the heart.
One possible result of this? A heart attack.
So this is one way that chronic inflammation can result in heart disease. There are many other ways, as well, that scientists are currently researching.
What’s more, there’s very good evidence that chronic inflammation is a significant risk factor for heart disease. For example, levels of C-reactive protein (or CRP) – a key molecule involved in inflammation and one of the markers measured by EverlyWell’s Heart Health Test – tend to be higher in people who repeatedly experience heart failure events.
Chronic inflammation can place your heart health in jeopardy – and is a major risk factor for heart disease. However, you might not know if you have chronic inflammation unless you check your levels of key markers of inflammation – like C-reactive protein, or CRP. You can do that – at home – with EverlyWell’s Heart Health Test or Vitamin D and Inflammation Test.