One of the most important recent discoveries in health is that inflammation is a crucial contributor to a surprising number of conditions—from the familiar ones such as rheumatoid arthritis to unexpected ones such as depression, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
How inflammation works
It is now known that inflammation plays an important role in cardiovascular disease. But how could inflammation be a cause of something that seems as uninflammatory as heart disease? We asked Decker Weiss, NMD, FASA, who is both a naturopath and a cardiologist at the Weiss Center for Health and Medicine in Carefree, Arizona.
He told us that inflammation plays both a general and a specific role. Generally, inflammation contributes to cardiovascular disease because inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, autoimmune diseases, and diabetes increase the risk of developing heart disease.
Specifically, Weiss says, “… elevated insulin, elevated blood sugar, trans fats, and homocysteine irritate and inflame the endothelium, or the lining of our blood vessels, initiating the process of coronary artery disease,” says Weiss. So, inflammation can both initiate and accelerate heart disease.
Atherosclerosis is an important example of how inflammation contributes to heart disease. Recent evidence shows that every step of atherosclerosis, from endothelial dysfunction to plaque formation, calcification, and rupture is driven by inflammatory cytokines and interleukins.
How nutritional heart helpers work
Think of some of the ways garlic and dark chocolate can help your heart. Inflammation causes endothelial dysfunction, which leads to vascular disease and atherosclerosis.
Garlic may help tamp down inflammation. So, supplementing with garlic could aid in improving endothelial function and vascular elasticity and, thus, play an important role in preventing cardiovascular disease.
Dark chocolate may also help reduce inflammation, and it may also improve endothelial function, improving blood vessel function and dilation enough to seriously reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Diet, inflammation, and heart disease
One of the most innovative studies on preventing heart disease started with two things we know—that inflammation causes heart disease, and that diet causes inflammation—and asked whether diet could cause heart disease.
The huge study found that diets that were higher in foods that cause inflammation were associated with a significant 38 percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease, 46 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease, and 28 percent higher risk of stroke.
Inflammatory foods included red meat, processed meat, organ meat, refined carbohydrates, and sweetened beverages.
Anti-inflammatory foods are heart healthy and include leafy green vegetables, dark yellow vegetables, fruit, whole grains, tea, coffee, and wine.
It follows, of course, that plant-based diets can help reduce your risk of developing or dying from cardiovascular disease.
Fats, inflammation, and heart disease
One of the important reasons a plant-based diet is anti-inflammatory is because of the kinds of fats it favors.
Animal foods are high in saturated fats, which not only increase blood clotting but are also highly inflammatory.
Plant foods, on the other hand, are high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which not only reduce blood clotting but are also powerfully anti-inflammatory.
Just 5 percent helps
The most detailed study of dietary fats so far found that replacing just five percent of calories from saturated fat with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats lowers the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
Supplements, inflammation, and heart disease
In a comprehensive review of studies involving omega-3 polyunsaturated essential fatty acids, supplementing with omega-3s was found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 13 percent and of dying of it by 35 percent.
Hawthorn and curcumin
When we asked Weiss about heart supplements with anti-inflammatory powers, he recommended hawthorn and curcumin. He added, “Hawthorn … protect[s] the endothelium.” Curcumin, he says, “has a more general anti-inflammatory effect and also reduces the oxidation of cholesterol.”
The following are all potent anti-inflammatories that may have a positive effect in preventing heart disease:
- olive leaf extract
- pine bark extract
- grapeseed extract
- green tea
- vitamins C and D
There are two important lessons from the inflammation-heart health connection. The first is that simple and delicious dietary changes and safe natural supplements may help prevent and treat cardiovascular disease. The second is the need to be aware of early heart-health warning signs such as joint pain, digestive issues, blood sugar issues, fatigue, insomnia, and depression.
Eating well can change the odds
Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide. An unhealthy diet is one of the most significant risks.
Foods for heart health
|may help significantly lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
|nuts and seeds
|contribute to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides and may help lower the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease
|fiber; monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
|extra-virgin olive oil
|can help reduce the risk of coronary artery disease and improve cholesterol
|monounsaturated fats; phenolic compounds
|may help lower blood pressure
|omega-3 EFAs; lignans