When we think about our cardiovascular health, often times we think about cholesterol levels and blood pressure, but what about inflammation? Inflammation in the body is another important risk factor for cardiovascular disease – a fact that was been recognized by the mainstream medical community more than 10 years ago. However, despite the existence of large research studies that support the link between inflammation and heart disease, many of us have yet to accept this connection. One reason why it may be difficult for us to wrap our brains around inflammation and heart disease is because our current model of health leaves little room for the role that long-term inflammation plays in chronic diseases like heart disease. Acute inflammation, a well understood concept, is known as a process that occurs directly in response to trauma – it is a discrete event characterized by an increase in pain, redness, swelling, and heat. Our understanding of how the body responds to low-grade, constant “trauma” – like stress, certain foods, and environmental toxins – is only recently being explored.

Chronic inflammation in the body is a much more complex process than acute inflammation. Chronic inflammation is associated with a shift in the type of immune cells that are produced, the type of proteins produced by the liver, and the types of chemicals produced from cell membranes. These changes are associated with an increased susceptibility to food intolerances and hay fever, changes in the quality of the gastrointestinal lining, poor immune system regulation, and an increased susceptibility to autoimmune disease. And, as we are learning from major studies on cardiovascular risk, like the JUPITER study, reducing chronic inflammation is associated with an decreased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Addressing inflammation is an important way to improve your health whether you have heart disease, other chronic disease, or are interested in prevention. One of the most important ways to decrease inflammation is to decrease stress. A long term elevation of stress hormones in the body causes oxidative stress, which contributes to inflammation. Lower your levels of stress hormones by creating a lifestyle for yourself that supports who you are, and incorporate activities into your week that help you manage stress. Another very proactive way you can work to reduce inflammation is by eating an anti-inflammatory diet. Limit foods that promote inflammation like animal products, simple carbohydrates, and foods you are allergic to. Increase foods that fight inflammation like cold water fish, brightly colored fruits and vegetables, and nuts like almonds and walnuts.

Incidentally, stress management, omega 3-fatty acids (found in cold water fish, almonds and walnuts), and diets high in fruits and vegetable all independently decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. Conventional medicine may offer you statin drugs to lower cholesterol and measures of inflammation, but you have a larger arsenal of natural therapies that can reduce inflammation and cholesterol levels without any adverse effects. In fact, by creating a lifestyle that minimizes stress, and adopting a diet that discourages inflammation, you will not only ward off heart disease, but also facilitate wellness and optimum health.