How Inflammation Affects Your Heart

Summer was the busiest and best season for Ken, the owner of a small-engine repair shop nestled in North Carolina’s hills. But Ken’s long hours and hectic schedule were interrupted—permanently. At age 46, overweight and a smoker, Ken’s first symptom of heart trouble was his last—he fell victim to a sudden, fatal heart attack. Ken had been confident he didn’t have a “plumbing problem” with his arteries. After all, he never experienced classic signs of clogged vessels such as chest pain or shortness of breath.

Ken’s story is not uncommon. Although many people think heart attacks occur when arteries become progressively narrowed by cholesterol, a large body of research suggests this occurs less than 30 percent of the time.1  Instead, most heart attacks and many strokes originate from relatively small but unstable fatty deposits in arteries known as plaques. When these arterial plaques rupture, they release a witches’ brew of compounds that can rapidly create artery-obstructing—and potentially life-threatening—clots.

Although health educators of yesteryear often invoked imagery of household plumbing to describe arteries and blood flow, these vessels actually bear little resemblance to your home’s inert water conduits. Arteries in reality are living tissues that contain powerful chemicals involved in immune function, inflammation, clotting, and more.2

The most prevalent disease of these living tissues is atherosclerosis, once called “hardening of the arteries.” But it actually involves more than “hardening” (sclerosis). Atherosclerosis also involves an “athero,” or “mushy,” fat component. In fact, the process begins when fats (such as cholesterol) move from the blood into the lining of the blood vessels. These fatty deposits then trigger a slowly evolving cascade of inflammation.

When working correctly, acute (short-term) inflammation activates the body’s immune system and rebuilding mechanisms to help us heal from injury. Desirable inflammation occurs with things as common as a twisted ankle or paper cut—or as unusual as major trauma or surgery. However, chronic (long-term) overactivation of the immune system can cause serious problems. Such is the case in diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma. It is also true in atherosclerosis.

Inflammation literally means “on fire.” And just like a steadily burning flame that slowly melts a candle, this process—if chronic—progressively erodes the health of our arteries. Indeed, scientists now realize chronic inflammation is a major—if not the major—culprit in coronary artery disease. It underlies not only the creation of arterial plaques but also their growth and rupture.

Although fatty deposits in arteries stimulate local inflammation, mounting evidence indicates inflammation elsewhere in our bodies can cause an “echo effect,” further worsening arterial damage. Conversely, anything that lessens inflammation throughout our bodies could theoretically help us reap additional dividends—by helping ease the inflammatory burden on our arteries.

Is there anything we can do to dampen the fires of inflammation in our bodies? Fortunately for our arteries, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Although most doctors can correctly tell you that evidence indicates the “statin” drugs can ease artery wall inflammation, fewer seem to realize that lifestyle practices can help quench the immune system’s fires. However, creating an antiinflammatory lifestyle promises benefits beyond potential heart health enhancement. Because inflammatory compounds have been implicated in other conditions as diverse as diabetes and certain cancers, lifestyle choices that limit this fiery process could theoretically add both years and quality to your life. Here are seven key choices you can make to lessen inflammation throughout your body:

Don’t Smoke. If you didn’t already have enough reasons to kick the habit, consider this: smoking as few as two cigarettes significantly increases inflammation throughout your body.3  This connection with inflammation provides additional possible mechanisms as to why smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States. When it comes to your heart, quitting dramatically reduces your risk of both fatal and nonfatal heart attacks. It also lowers your risk of death from any cause—at any age.4

Trim Down. Carrying extra weight does more than affect your appearance and mobility. For example, the fat carried around our bellies tends to be metabolically active, producing chemicals that heighten inflammation throughout our bodies. Losing even small amounts of weight can have a significant favorable impact on inflammation and other chronic disease processes. Indeed, weight loss has been linked to lower cholesterol levels, improved blood pressure, less diabetes (or better diabetes control), and fewer joint problems.

Prioritize Produce. Spend more time shopping in the fruit and vegetable aisles and you stand to dramatically decrease inflammation throughout your body. In general, animal products tend to fan the flames of inflammation while plant foods put them out.  Although cold-water fish are an exception (they have abundant supplies of antiinflammatory omega-3 fat), you need not consume sea food to get this beneficial fat. In fact, fish do not make omega-3 fat; instead, they concentrate it from the “plant foods” they consume (such as phytoplankton). So reach for walnuts or ground flax to stock up on a mercury-free source of inflammation-fighting omega-3 fat.

De-Stress.  Scientists have uncovered a compelling link between stress and inflammation.5 Although we can’t always control the things that come at us (the stressors), we can often change how we cope. Take time to unwind, spend more time connecting with friends and family, or prioritize spiritual rejuvenation by adding meditation, prayer, and/or Bible study to your daily routine.

Get More Sleep. Inadequate rest worsens inflammation throughout your body. This is not just theory. Over the years many of my patients with arthritis have noted a simple relationship: less sleep, more joint pain. Scientific research is convincing: cut back on your sleep and you can double or triple the level of inflammation-boosting chemicals called cytokines.

In the Western World our hearts and arteries are suffering the toll of chronic inflammation. Don’t let your first symptom of heart trouble be your last! Why don’t you determine today to enhance your own health by investing in a lifestyle that can help quench the fires of inflammation?


1 AJM Jan 2009: S10.

2 Heart Health in the Inflammation Age. Peter Libby. Scientific American Presents: Oral and Whole Body Health. Special publication by Proctor and Gamble, 2006.

3 Respir Res. 2005; 6(1): 22.

4 Evidence-based Medicine 2004(9):28.

5 J Psychosom Res 2002;52(1):1-23.

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