When you get injured or sick, inflammation acts as your body’s natural fight-or-flight response. It signals for your immune system to take action – either by working to repair an injury or fight off an illness. As your body heals, this inflammation should go away, says Sindhu Koshy, M.D., a cardiologist for Henry Ford Health. But in instances of chronic inflammation, that isn’t always the case.
“Chronic inflammation means that your body is sending signals of that fight-or-flight response when it isn’t necessary,” says Dr. Koshy. “If your body continues to think you are in that high-stress point, it can impact your heart and overall health long term.”
How Inflammation Affects The Body
Chronic inflammation anywhere in the body can produce similar effects. When your body is in a constant state of stress it can cause:
- Increased cortisol levels
- Rapid heart rate
- Elevated blood pressure
- Fluctuating blood sugar levels
- Weight gain
Autoimmune diseases are one of the biggest causes of chronic bodily inflammation. Conditions such as arthritis or lupus cause specific areas of the body to become inflamed, such as your joints or gastrointestinal track. Overtime, this inflammation can spread to other parts of the body.
“The biggest thing to note is that people who have chronic health conditions associated with inflammation are at a higher risk for developing more serious heart issues,” warns Dr. Koshy.
How Inflammation Affects Your Heart
Like any part of the body, inflammation can affect that heart directly. When the heart muscle becomes inflamed (called myocarditis), it can impact your heart’s ability to pump blood throughout the body. Other conditions such as coronary artery disease can also cause inflammation.
“When your blood vessels become inflamed, the body sends platelets (small blood cells that help repair damage to the body) to fight,” says Dr. Koshy. “As your body sends more and more platelets, it can cause blockages in the arteries that could result in a heart attack or stroke.”
Managing Chronic Inflammation
It may not be possible to complete rid your body of inflammation, but there are steps you can take to better care for yourself:
- Learn to manage chronic conditions. If you have an autoimmune disease, talk with your doctor to work on ways to try and control your symptoms. Often, lifestyle changes and medication may be recommended.
- Monitor your levels. Keep track of your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. These levels may be higher because of bodily inflammation but living a healthy lifestyle can help to reduce fluctuations. If you have a pre-existing heart condition, your doctor may suggest you take a statin to help keep your cholesterol in check.
- Eat a better diet. Tweaking your diet is a great way to control bodily inflammation. Try cleaning up your eating habits to be more heart-healthy (limit your sugar and saturated fat consumption). At the very least, think less fried foods, more fruits and green vegetables.
- Reduce stress. Day-to-day stress can increase inflammation. If you experience stress frequently, look for opportunities to relax and practice self-care. You might try meditation or connecting with family and friends.
- Change your lifestyle. Sometimes, making changes to your routine can help you manage inflammation. Alcohol and smoking can make inflammation worse, so limiting your drinking and quitting tobacco are your best bet. Additionally, try incorporating exercise more – even if it’s only a little bit at a time.
- Talk with your doctor. If your doctor thinks you might have chronic inflammation, lab tests can be ordered to check. A C-Reactive Protein (CRP) test measures the level of this protein in your bloodstream. If your body is fighting off inflammation, levels of this protein will be high.
Managing chronic inflammation does take work. But making these lifestyle changes and working closely with your doctor to monitor your health can help reduce your risk of developing a heart condition related to bodily inflammation.
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Dr. Sindhu Koshy is a cardiologist for Henry Ford Health who sees patients at Cardiovascular Consultants, P.C.