Inflammation can be the good guy, the tough one that goes to work quickly when you get injured, sick, or stung by a bee. The immune system uses its super powers to protect your body, the swelling as result of an injury. When you get injured, the area swells up as a way to prevent from injuring it more. It also is painful and when we experience pain, we are careful and try to go easy on it, this allows it to heal! Inflammation definitely has its purpose, but what happens when it gets out of control? Chronic inflammation is the underlying cause of many diseases such as: cardiovascular disease, arthritis, dementia, and even cancer.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Approximately 610,000 people die from heart disease each year in the US. How do inflammation and heart disease relate? Think of that injury that swells as your immune system rushes to the rescue, the inflammation causes it to swell, part of the healing process. Eventually the swelling goes down and the injury heals. Smoking, high blood pressure, high LDL, are all forms of ‘injury’ to the heart. All those risk factors tend to be long lasting, resulting in chronic inflammation. Low-level inflammation (anywhere in the body) can cause damage to blood vessels and plaque builds up. If plaque that builds up is loosened, it can lead to heart attack or stroke. There are ongoing studies and research looking at exactly what role inflammation plays in cardiovascular disease.
An exciting discovery has recently emerged regarding inflammation and heart disease. In a clinical trial, it was found that interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 for short) is an important molecule involved in inflammation. There is evidence that this pesky molecule might contribute to the development of heart disease. In Boston, Paul Ridker and colleagues had a group of high-risk patients that they treated with a drug that blocked the IL-1, just as they thought the group of patients suffered less heart disease! Furthermore, this group treated with the IL- 1 blocking drugs developed less cancers. Many patients in the group smoked and they believed some may even have small lung cancer due to their history. The IL-1 blockers seemed to stop the progression to detectable malignancy. This brings us to question, if we lower inflammation could that reduce our risk for heart disease and cancer? More research and clinical trials are needed, but it is noted that currently anti-inflammatory treatments don’t work in advanced cancers.
Though we don’t know exactly how inflammation directly leads to cardiovascular disease, we have information connecting chronic low-level inflammation to the buildup of cholesterol and plaque inside our blood vessels, leading to heart attack or stroke if the plaque is loosened. As with many chronic diseases, eating a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly, and quit smoking are some of the best preventative methods out there. Don’t let inflammation slowly burn in your body, fight back and do your part in battling the chronic inflammation!
Stay tuned for part two of Inflammation - The Silent Killer!