Not only do we celebrate Valentine’s Day, but February is also American Heart Month making it the perfect time to give your heart all of the love. I’m guessing you’ve heard all about the warnings about saturated fat and cholesterol increasing your risk for heart disease, and maybe you’ve even been watching your salt intake. But did you know that inflammation is one of the primary culprits in the progression of heart disease? Here’s a quick run down on what inflammation is, how it effects your health, and what you can do to fight inflammation.
To start, let’s talk about what inflammation actually is. Inflammation is the result of our body’s protective immune response to foreign invaders (like bacteria or viruses) and stress (like an injury, psychological stress, or intense exercise). This is the type of inflammation where you’ll experience redness, pain, and swelling. So, inflammation isn’t always a bad thing – especially when it’s short lived and helps our body heal and recover. However, continuous damage long term puts the body in a state of chronic inflammation. This chronic inflammation increases our risk for disease and is at the root of things like; hypertension, heart disease, alzheimer’s, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, insulin resistance, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, allergies, asthma, and hashimoto’s.
Specifically, the role that inflammation plays in heart health is tied to cholesterol– there are two different types of cholesterol; LDL and HDL. HDL is the “good” cholesterol and carries cholesterol to the liver to be eliminated from the body. Small, dense LDL particles on the other hand, are susceptible to becoming oxidized by free radicals. This oxidation of LDL is what sets off an inflammatory response in the arteries resulting in the accumulation of inflammatory cells (like white blood cells and immune cells) at the site, inflaming the blood vessels, restricting blood flow and oxygen delivery over time, ultimately increasing the risk of heart disease.
Here are 10 strategies for reducing LDL oxidation and chronic inflammation, and keeping your heart in tip top shape!
1. Add more antioxidant-rich foods to your daily routine. Antioxidants play an important role in protecting our cells from oxidative stress.
Sources of Antioxidants:
Dark leafy green vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage
Coffee, tea, red wine
Turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, oregano, basil
2. Quit smoking
3. Eliminate trans fats or "Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil": Trans fats can be found in many foods – including fried foods like doughnuts, and baked goods including cakes, pie crusts, biscuits, frozen pizza, cookies, crackers, and stick margarines and other spreads.
4. Stabilize blood sugar
5. Identify food intolerances and improve your gut health (Download my “Heal the Gut Cheatsheet”)
6. Manage daily stressors: The “flight or fight response” to psychological stress releases Cortisol and Adrenalin, but is meant to be a short-term response to stress. When you are in this state chronically without relief, it initiates an inflammatory response in the body.
7. Improve your balance of omega-3 fatty acids vs. omega-6 fatty acids in your diet: A diet disproportionately high in omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega-3’s has been linked to chronic inflammation and increased risk for chronic disease. The ideal ratio is 4:1, and the average American Diet ratio is 15:1 (omega-6: omega-3). We do need both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids - they are essential fatty acids, which means that our body cannot make them and therefore we must consume them from the food we eat for optimal health. Omega-6 fatty acids are not "bad", however the key takeaways is the need for an appropriate balance. In general, this means decreasing our intake of omega-6 fatty acid sources and increasing our intake of omega-3 fatty acid sources.
Omega 6 fatty acid sources: safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, cottonseeds oil, sesame oil, peanut oil, soybean oil, and canola oil (all mainly found in processed foods)
Omega 3 fatty acid sources: Fatty fish (salmon, sardines, tuna), flaxseed, walnuts, chia seeds
8. Reduce refined flours and sugar (white flour, table sugar, high fructose corn syrup)
9. Reduce fried foods
10. Reduce processed meats (sausage, pepperoni, lunch meats)