Practically everyone concerned with heart health has heard that high cholesterol levels in your blood can be a cause of heart disease. But did you know that researchers and doctors are just as concerned with inflammation as a cause of cardiovascular disease? You might ask, “What does inflammation have to do with heart attacks and strokes?” The answer might surprise you.

A few decades ago, researchers studied inflammatory markers, particularly C reactive protein (CRP), and found that the presence of high levels of these chemicals in the blood can be a good predictor of the development of coronary artery disease, heart attacks and strokes. Doctors had long-known of the correlation of high subtypes of cholesterol in the blood (particularly LDL or, “bad cholesterol”) with those conditions, but a series of studies elucidated in The New England Journal of Medicine brought out the importance of CRP and the role of inflammation in cardiovascular disease.

It turned out that risk factors that were associated with cardiovascular disease and high “bad” cholesterol were the same for the high levels of CRP—i.e. obesity, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, diet lacking complex carbohydrates and high in saturated fat and refined sugars, lack of exercise, excess alcohol use and genetic factors.

All the factors except genetic ones are under our control, so through lifestyle modification and, when needed, drug therapy, the rates of most cardiovascular disease can be reduced with careful and thoughtful medical care and self-care. However, with the revelation that inflammation and its subsequent damage to the layer of cells lining all our blood vessels can cause heart attack, stroke and heart disease, we have new and better ways to fight this major killer.

When the cellular linings of our blood vessels (the endothelium) get inflamed, the surface gets roughed up to the point that a chemical reaction takes place. Through a cascade of chemical and physical events that scientists now better understand, a blockage (known as plaque) builds up and restricts blood flow and the delivery of vital oxygen to the tissues of the heart, brain and body. This, in turn, can lead to heart attack, stroke and other vascular-related diseases. By taking steps to reduce inflammation, we can mitigate many, if not all, of this reaction and lead healthier lives. These steps, which used to focus primarily on reducing LDL cholesterol, now apply to CRP as well, and there are even steps specifically aimed at reducing CRP that we can take. The steps for good both LDL and CRP reduction are:

  • Stop using all tobacco products
  • Improve your diet—with low refined sugar, complex carbs and foods rich in omega 3’s (fish, nuts, avocado, use olive oil instead of butter).
  • Exercise.
  • Get your blood sugar and blood pressure under control.
  • Meditate, do tai-chi or other mind-relaxing techniques.
  • Control stress
  • Consider medication as a last resort when all else fails

The steps particularly good for CRP reduction include the above plus:

  • Consider turmeric, ginger, flax seed and krill oil as supplements.
  • Indulge in dark chocolate as a midday treat.
  • Talk to your doctor about measuring your CRP. Less than 1 mg/liter is good…1-3 is higher risk…and greater than 3 is cause for concern.
  • Discuss the role of anti-inflammatory medicine, such as aspirin, with your doctor.
  • Avoid ultra-carbohydrate-restricting diets like the once-popular Atkins diet. Such regimens have been found to increase CRP in many patients! Choose complex carbs like whole grains, fruits, vegetables and high-fiber-content foods that actually lower CRP.

It used to be that cholesterol got all the attention in the cardiovascular medicine arena. But doctors now know, from extensive research in the past two decades, that inflammation and CRP may play as big a role in the development of heart disease and stroke. So, keep that endothelial swelling and rawness down! Your heart, brain and the rest of your body will thank you for it!

For more with Dr. Sherer, click here for his podcast and video interviews, or purchase his memoir, The House of Black and White: My Life with and Search for Louise Johnson Morris.