Are you struggling to get your cholesterol down in hopes of lowering your risk of heart disease? Not to underplay the importance of having a healthy cholesterol level, but focus is shifting towards another “bad guy” that puts you at risk for heart disease – inflammation. Keeping inflammation in check may be just as important, if not more so, than reducing your cholesterol level when it comes to the health of your heart.
Inflammation and Heart Disease
Inflammation is linked to heart disease risk. What we know is that heart disease is linked with higher levels of c-reactive protein, also known as CRP, a marker for inflammation. This is a protein your doctor can measure by checking your blood. If your CRP level is too high, there are ways to lower it naturally.
A number of studies show that people with high levels of c-reactive protein are at greater risk for heart disease even when their cholesterol levels are normal or below normal. In one large study involving almost 28,000 women, more than half of the women with high CRP levels went on to develop heart disease although their LDL-cholesterol was normal. In fact, research shows that half of all heart attacks occur in people with normal LDL-cholesterol levels. Some cardiologists are now screening CRP levels and LDL-cholesterol to get a better idea of a person’s risk for heart disease just as they screen for cholesterol.
How Does Inflammation Contribute to Heart Disease?
Just as important as the health of your heart is the health of your blood vessels. Chronic inflammation causes changes in the inner lining of blood vessels that increases the risk for platelets clumping together and clotting that can trigger a heart attack or stroke. Keeping your arteries healthy is important. One way in which statin medications reduce the risk of heart disease is by lowering inflammation – but there are other ways to reduce inflammation inside arteries and lower your risk for heart disease.
Reducing Inflammation Naturally
First, it’s important to know where you stand. When your doctor checks your cholesterol level by doing a lipid panel, ask them to check a CRP level too. If your CRP level is less than 1 mg/dl, your heart disease risk is low based on CRP. If it’s greater than 3 mg/dl, your risk is high. In-between would be intermediate risk. If your level is too high, what can you do to lower it? Here are some tips:
Eat an anti-inflammatory diet. Eliminate processed and packaged foods from your diet, and add more fruits and vegetables. The phytochemicals and antioxidants in fruits and veggies help to reduce inflammation. A Mediterranean diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish, nuts, and seeds is ideal for reducing inflammation.
Get more omega-3 fatty acids. You can get these healthy fats naturally by eating fatty fish like wild-caught salmon. If you can’t stomach the taste of fish, talk to your doctor about taking a fish oil supplement.
Eat more fiber-rich foods. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that diets higher in fiber lower C-reactive protein levels. Replace potatoes with fiber-rich beans and lentils and white bread with high-fiber wheat bread. Another way to add fiber to your diet is to add flaxseed or a spoonful of psyllium to hot breakfast cereal in the morning. Instead of using white flour when baking, use coconut flour. It’s high in fiber and low in carbs. Snack on nuts instead of potato chips. Of course, eat more fruits and vegetables. When you eat fruit, leave the peel on for more fiber – but make sure you buy organic if you do this.
- Exercise. A 16-week study showed that aerobic exercise reduces CRP levels in young women who were previously sedentary.
- If you smoke, kick the habit.
- Add more vitamin C to your diet. Research shows that diets rich in vitamin C lower c-reactive protein levels.
The Bottom Line?
Think beyond cholesterol when it comes to heart disease prevention. The health of your blood vessels counts too. If you have inflamed arteries due to a poor diet and lack of exercise, it’s time to make some positive changes. Do it for the health of your heart.
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