Inflammation can be good for your body…or bad.
Imagine you turn your ankle while hiking. Your body instantly activates your immune system to deal with the damage, sending an army of specialized cells to the area to make repairs. As those cells go to work, you start to see and feel the signs of inflammation: swelling, redness, heat. It’s painful, but it’s good.
Now imagine a coronary artery that has been injured – by tobacco smoke, high blood pressure, or other factors.
The injury again triggers the inflammatory process, and the area gets flooded with cells and other responding substances. In this case, however, some of those responders can do more harm than good. They can trigger a cascade of events – including disrupted plaque deposits and blood clots that cut off blood flow to the heart – that lead to a heart attack.
“It’s rampant inflammation that causes heart attacks, not high cholesterol,” says Ronesh Sinha, M.D., an internal medicine doctor at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. “In fact, more than half of all heart attacks occur in people who have normal cholesterol levels. Many of those people were diligently taking their cholesterol medications, but still doing things that can contribute to inflammation, including eating the wrong foods, overstressing, sitting too much, and accumulating ever more belly fat.”
“If you want to keep your heart healthy and prevent a heart attack, you need to protect your arteries from inflammation,” he says.
What can you do? Plenty. “Smoking and high blood pressure can both trigger the inflammatory response in your arteries, so quitting smoking and keeping your blood pressure under control can help a lot,” Dr. Sinha says.
More tips from Dr. Sinha: