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Heart Health 101: Stress, Inflammation, and Inertia, Part 2

By: Melissa Kuser, ND, LAc

As we say goodbye to National Heart Health Awareness Month and move closer to the warmer temperatures of spring, let’s heat up the conversation around heart health.  Inflammation, dubbed “the Silent Killer,” (http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20040223,00.html)  has been linked to nearly every chronic disease of industrialized society, including cardiovascular disease.   As early as 1997, researchers established the connection between CRP-hs, a marker of inflammation in the body, and an increased heart attack risk.  In 2005, those same researchers observed that patients with lower CRP values (less overall inflammation) had better health outcomes regardless of their cholesterol level.  So what is inflammation, anyway?  More importantly, how can you control it?

Inflammation occurs in the body as the immune system responds to crises.   The classic and most tangible example is the redness, heat and swelling your experience around a splinter or cut.  Various white blood cells flock to the site of injury or infection and begin releasing chemical messengers which cause other cells to migrate to the area to kill, clean up or release more chemical signals.  In an acute inflammatory response, the process is finite – the redness and pain disappear, the wound heals, and the immune cells take a break before the next acute event.  However, much like the persistent stress response I discussed in Part 1, chronic inflammation represents the body’s inability to shut the inflammatory response off.  

What causes this slow-simmering fire that wreaks havoc in our blood vessels, our joints, and our brains? In the growing majority of Americans, obesity is the primary culprit.  Fat cells generate an overabundance of the same inflammatory cytokines (chemical messengers) as those white blood cells who helped to heal your injury.  These cytokines can trigger a cascade of events in the body that eventually suppress the body’s response to insulin.  Over time this leads to insulin-resistance, or what we commonly know as Diabetes Type 2.  In other individuals, chronic inflammation can be caused by relatively hidden infections in our gums, a.k.a. periodontal disease.  Food intolerances, poor digestion, auto-immune diseases, and chronic stress can all also be sources of chronic inflammation in the body.

Diet and plant medicine are two helpful tools used in Naturopathic practice to help patients lower their overall inflammatory burden.   Healthy fats, particularly those high in omega-3 fatty acids like flax seeds, walnuts, sardines and salmon, can help shift one’s body into a more anti-inflammatory state.  Identifying and eliminating food sensitivities is another way to help decrease one’s total level of inflammation.  Faddish though it may be, cutting carbohydrates and eliminating grains, can dramatically decrease inflammation in the body. A 2008 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=2008+NEJM+stampfer) compared a low-fat and calorie-restricted diet, a Mediterranean diet, and a low carb, non-calorie restricted diet. Although the subjects on the low-carb diet ate the most saturated fat, they ended up with the healthiest ratio of HDL to LDL cholesterol and lost twice as much weight as their low-fat-eating counterparts.  Low-carb or grain-free diets naturally encourage increased vegetable consumption to reach satiety.  And vegetables and fruits are naturally high in flavonoids, which also have a strong anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effect.    (See my Hibiscus Cooler recipe at the end of this article for an easy way to get a high daily dose of flavorful flavonoids.)

Inflammation is exacerbated by our national epidemic of inertia.  We are taking on more responsibilities in the workplace, at home, and in our communities and compounding it with longer commute times in the car.  The unfortunate consequences include weight gain, depression, and the simmering flame of inflammation – all of which contribute to heart disease.

Moving is way easier than most of us think.  For example, in the course of sitting down to write this article, I found myself growing tired and day-dreamy with a bit of writer’s block.  Instead of reaching for a cup of coffee, I stood up and did a 10-minute online workout video.  I felt energized, clear-headed and confident in a way that no cup o’jo could do.  This type of mini-workout is something I recommend to my patients who work long hours in front of a computer or to mothers at home with small kids.  Sure having 30 or 60 minutes for a cardio workout a few times a week is ideal, but honestly, some movement is better than no movement. 

The other obstacle I often encounter is people’s resistance to going to a gym or doing a class.  In reality, these are both modern-day inventions constructed around the industry of fitness.   Walking or biking as a way to get from here to there is the simplest, most universal way people around the world keep active on a daily basis.  It keeps blood circulating, keeps muscles strong, and provides weight-bearing loads for the strength of your bones.

As we approach the spring equinox, I urge you to mimic the young spring seedlings and get moving.  Push through the obstacles and roadblocks that stand between you and a healthier, more vibrant body.  Stretch yourself up toward the light, toward your best you.  And if you need support along the way, please schedule time with one of the amazing health care providers at Kwan Yin Healing Arts.

Bonus Recipe: Hibiscus Cooler

1)   Steep 1 handful dried hibiscus flowers (often found in Mexican groceries) in 1 quart boiling water for 20 minutes.

2)   On a warm, sunny day, you can also harness the power of the sun by mixing the flowers with room temperature water in a mason jar or glass pitcher.

Place in direct sunlight for 2-6 hours depending on the intensity of the sun.

3)   You can sweeten with honey to taste. 

4)   Refrigerate for 2 hours and serve chilled. 

Note: (Tazo brand teas also makes a lovely hibiscus blend, called Passion, for the simplicity of a teabag. Use 2-4 teabags per quart depending on the strength of tea you like.)