Inflammation. CRP. Statins.
These are the new buzz-words in the world of heart health. These terms aren't replacements for your old heart vocabulary words, so don't forget about your LDL, HDL, triglycerides, and blood pressure yet; just add these words to your heart glossary. Read on to learn more about what these words mean and how to put your new knowledge into action.
Glossary of New Heart Terms
Inflammation is one of our body's key defense mechanisms against infections and aids in the healing process. You can see healthy inflammation in action when you get a paper cut on your finger. The area gets warm and red, and maybe a little swollen. Those are all signs that your immune system is working to repair your damaged skin as quickly as possible. This type of inflammatory response happens around your heart, too. If some cholesterol slips into your vessel walls and plaque starts to form, an inflammatory reaction is provoked. There is a point, however, when inflammation stops being helpful and starts being harmful. Sometimes, an inflammatory response doesn't get turned off and it progresses into chronic low-grade inflammation in the body. Researchers suspect that this can lead to one or many chronic diseases, like cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis. In the case of cardiovascular disease, constant inflammation can set off a cascade of effects that can encourage the progression of a condition like atherosclerosis into a heart attack or a stroke.
CRP, which stands for C-reactive protein, is produced by the liver in response to inflammation and is carried in your bloodstream, thus acting as a measurable indicator of inflammation in the body. Just like LDL and HDL cholesterol are implicated in heart disease, CRP is emerging as an important predictor of heart attacks, strokes, type-2 diabetes, and other signs of heart disease, like hypertension. Even if your LDL and HDL cholesterol levels are good, you may want to have your CRP level checked by your doctor, as it is one more clue to your heart's health.
Statins are drugs that not only can help to reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol but also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. If you find out that your CRP level is elevated, your doctor may want to prescribe a statin, but keep in mind that eliminating the dietary and lifestyle causes of inflammation is a more proactive first step to taking responsibility for your health than using statins.
The Do's and Don'ts of Inflammation
Chronic inflammation is dangerous and can be aggravated by a whole host of factors, many of which are within our control. If you want to lower your risk of persistent inflammation, these are your do's and don'ts:
Don't smoke. Each cigarette is an oxidative attack on your body and oxidation elicits an inflammatory response from your immune system. Smoking, like high blood pressure, causes damage to blood vessel walls and sets the stage for inflammation.
Don't carry excess weight. Being overweight directly increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Also, the presence of abundant fat cells may indirectly encourage the release of inflammation-causing hormones. Losing weight has been shown to reduce harmful inflammation inside the body, as well as reduce CRP, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.
Don't eat pro-inflammatory foods. Many processed and fatty foods in our diet can encourage inflammation. Partially hydrogenated oils and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats (but not omega-3 fats) are considered pro-inflammatory. Most, but not all, packaged and commercially prepared foods tend to contain these unhealthy fats. Scan ingredient lists for the words "partially hydrogenated" and steer clear. The following is a list of ingredients and foods that you should tightly limit when following an anti-inflammatory eating plan: Pro-inflammatory Foods
Beef fat Chicken fat
Energy bars with coatings
Protein bars with coatings
Do exercise. Exercise is another factor that helps lower CRP levels, an indication that it may help reduce inflammation. Physically fit people have lower CRP than unfit people. Exercise also helps to lower blood pressure and raise HDL cholesterol. New government exercise guidelines recommend 60-90 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per day.
Do eat an antioxidant-rich diet. Inflammation is often provoked by free-radical reactions, like LDL oxidation, inside our arteries. Since antioxidants help prevent free-radical reactions, foods high in phytonutrients and vitamins C and E should be emphasized. Fruits and vegetables are abundant suppliers of these nutrients, especially if they are deeply colored. See the Major Antioxidants chart below for some foods that are potent antioxidants: Major Antioxidants
Nutrient Food Source
Vitamin C Broccoli, red bell peppers, red chili peppers, Brussels sprouts, baby bok choy, oranges, strawberries, kiwifruit, pineapple, other citrus fruits
Vitamin E Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds and other nuts, avocado, olive oil, dark leafy green vegetables
Beta Carotene Orange sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, spinach winter squash, dried apricots, mangoes, cantaloupe
Do eat an anti-inflammatory diet. Once the pro-inflammatory foods are removed, they need to be replaced by foods that will encourage the production of anti-inflammatory hormones. Organic olive oil should be your main cooking oil, since it is high in monounsaturated fats and low in omega-6 fats. Fatty fish, nuts, fruits and vegetables are the best sources of anti-inflammatory nutrients. See the Inflammation Fighters chart below for specific foods that help fight inflammation: Inflammation Fighters
Nutrient Food Source
Omega-3 Fats Salmon, herring, sardines, tuna, mackerel, ground flax seeds, walnuts, walnut oil, pumpkin seeds, soy beans, fortified eggs
Salicylic Acid Raisins, prunes, dates, berries, plums, apricots, cantaloupe, grapes, broccoli, spinach, orange sweet potatoes, chili peppers, green peppers, cucumber, zucchini, tomato products, whole grains, turmeric, ginger root, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, curry, mustard, oregano, rosemary, sage, basil, mint, thyme, bay leaves, black pepper
Anthocyanins Blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, cherries
Quercetin Apples, pears, garlic, onions, red wine, green tea
Curcumin Turmeric, mustard
Shogaols Ginger root
Isoflavones Soy beans, tofu, soy products
Resveratrol Red wine, red grapes, grape juice, peanuts, vegetables
Eating a healthy diet with an emphasis on foods high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients may help keep your heart healthy and prevent diabetes, arthritis, certain cancers, and Alzheimer's disease. You should try to emphasize the healthful foods listed in the charts, but continue to keep in mind that all fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are healthy. My advice is to choose one risk factor to remove and three antioxidant or anti-inflammatory foods to add to your diet to start to make your heart happy and healthy this month. Even if you aren't ready to make all of these inflammation-fighting changes, you should do something for your heart this February.