February is National Heart Month, raising awareness of heart disease. As part of the campaign to encourage you to look after your heart, this article will highlight the importance of controlling inflammation to support your heart health, and some inflammation-busting tips and tricks.
First, let’s find out what inflammation is and discover how it can be linked to your heart.
You cut your finger or bang your knee and you’ll experience pain, heat, redness and swelling. Blood is diverted to the affected area, carrying nutrients and white blood cells.
This is your inflammatory response kicking in, and it’s necessary and useful to allow the process of healing to start. Inflammation is part of your immune response, its attempt to fight off invaders.
Once the trauma or injury has been resolved, the inflammation should begin to subside. Sometimes, though, this doesn’t happen as planned. If your immune system mistakenly perceives some sort of ongoing danger, inflammation rumbles on even though there’s no injury provoking it. This is chronic inflammation.
You can be living with chronic inflammation without knowing it, because the symptoms are often vague, like aches and pains, skin issues, digestive problems, mood issues and low energy. A diet high in inflammatory foods, a sedentary lifestyle, alcohol, obesity, a persistent bacterial or viral infection and environmental toxins can all encourage inflammation to rumble away in the background.
Unfortunately, inflammation does damage body cells. It sparks off oxidation, the process behind cellular ageing, in turn provoking more inflammation. Oxidative stress and inflammation are constant companions.
In the short-term, collateral damage of cells by inflammation isn’t a problem because it can be repaired afterwards, but if inflammation becomes chronic body cells are destroyed or damaged and your healing processes can’t keep up. Chronic inflammation is like an invisible fire burning inside you. This is why it’s believed to be behind all sorts of chronic diseases, and heart disease is no exception.
Inflammation affects your heart muscle and its valves. It can damage the lining inside your blood vessels, creating an ideal surface for cholesterol, minerals and fats to latch onto and form an atherosclerotic plaque, narrowing your blood vessels and pushing up blood pressure. When inflammation is present blood clots more easily, and narrow vessels can easily be blocked by a blood clot, causing a heart attack or stroke.
Cholesterol is often been painted as a villain, but it will only stick to blood vessels if they’ve been damaged by chronic inflammation. More important than watching cholesterol levels is managing inflammation so the cholesterol doesn’t accumulate on your blood vessel walls.
Certain fats are harmful to health and these include processed and altered fats, as well as commercially produced polyunsaturated cooking oils. However, diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol don’t raise blood cholesterol in most people.
Omega 3 oils, found in oily fish, walnuts, and seeds like flax seeds, chia seeds and pumpkin seeds, are anti-inflammatory and protective against heart disease.
The bacteria living in your gut microbiome play an important role in managing inflammation. Healthy bacteria emit messenger substances controlling inflammation, while less diverse, unhealthy bacteria provoke chronic inflammation. Your microbiome needs fibre from a wide variety of plant-based foods to thrive, while sugar destroys your beneficial bacteria.
This vitamin is hugely important for managing inflammation and oxidative stress – it plays a role in keeping blood vessel linings smooth, preventing damage. You can’t store vitamin C, so you need to eat sources of this vitamin, like fruit and vegetables, regularly throughout the day.
Moderate exercise has been found to decrease inflammatory chemicals in the blood – your heart needs exercise like any other muscle. It’s well-known stress is linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and stress hormones provoke chronic inflammation. Lack of or inconsistent sleep is a huge source of stress.
Some foods – like red meat, fibre-depleted processed foods and sugar – increase inflammation, while other foods like fruit and vegetables, oily fish, nuts, seeds and pulses decrease inflammation. Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet goes a long way towards managing inflammation.
If inflammation is affecting your heart, it will be present all around your whole body. Functional medicine understands all your organs and system are connected to and affect each other.
Functional testing can measure the amount of inflammatory chemicals in your blood while a consultation with a practitioner will assess your diet and any nutrient deficiencies, your current and past health, genetic predisposition and lifestyle to provide you with a toolkit of dietary and lifestyle strategies to manage chronic inflammation and support your heart.
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