It seems counterintuitive, but inflammation begins with the body’s way of defending itself against harm. We’ve all experienced it as part of the normal healing process after a scrape or cut. Waves of immune cells rush to the injury, combatting threatening pathogens and sometimes causing heat, redness and swelling. But the new thinking is that serious health problems begin when inflammation overstays its welcome, persisting in a chronic, low-grade state in which some immune cells remain activated even though they’re not needed.
We used to think heart disease resulted from deposits of fatty plaques in our arteries, like the buildup of rust in a water pipe. But we now know that heart attacks rarely happen simply due to this buildup. Far from being mere “pipes,” arteries are active participants in the progress of heart disease, both attracting and harboring cells that release inflammatory substances. The result is a fatty plaque that forms within the artery walls and is a target for yet more inflammatory damage. According to my friend Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., distinguished professor of nutrition at Penn State, “inflammation plays a key role in weakening arterial plaque, causing the deposits to rupture—which can lead to sudden coronary death, heart attack or stroke.”
Anything you can do to lower your level of inflammation, then, can go a long way toward reducing your risk for heart disease. Your doctor may recommend a daily dose of aspirin, the original anti-inflammatory drug. Also, since body fat is itself a source of inflammation, losing extra pounds can help—as can increasing your fitness level. And exciting research is showing that what we eat can make a difference too.