Categories
Heart Attacks Heart Health Metabolic

Atherosclerosis and Inflammation

If you’re interested, you can read about how a coronary plaque ends up causing a blockage of the vessel and eventual ischemia. It’s often not what most people think. In this article, I will discuss the basics of how atherosclerosis and inflammation play a role in heart health.

Atherosclerosis

Plaque is the buildup inside an artery, leading to decreased blood flow and sometimes complete lack of blood flow – obstruction.

With obstruction comes ischemia – lack of oxygen to nearby tissue; not just muscle but the vessels themselves, the nerves, and connective tissue.

You need cholesterol to build up the plaque. With a total cholesterol value below 150, achieved naturally without medications, it’s rare to see someone develop much plaque in their arteries.

Another ingredient for plaque buildup is hardened vessels and increased pressures or turbulent flow of blood through those vessels. Hypertension can cause this; lack of exercise or inflammation can also contribute.

Unstable Plaque

Let’s lay the cards flat on the table – we don’t know much about inflammation. Astute clinicians can recognize inflammation when they see it. There are specific biomarkers that are helpful as well.

Inflammation adds to the problem of atherosclerotic and negatively affects heart health because it leads to unstable plaques.

A plaque is like a scab on a wound. If it’s the right time for it to come off, it’ll fall off without any bleeding. Rip it off prematurely, and you’ll get fresh blood.

That fresh blood will clot in the artery and create unstable plaque is prone to rupturing and exposing those raw surfaces. Suddenly you go from a tiny plaque to a massive clot that halts all blood flow in that artery.

Measuring Inflammation

There are several biomarkers that can tell us there is inflammation. But it’s not biomarkers alone I use in my practice.

Some people with inflammation in their bodies may never develop unstable plaque. And some with inflammation may not have much plaque, to begin with. But that might be the exception.

If someone has atherosclerosis, my goal is to increase their exercise capacity – both cardiovascular and anaerobic. Next, I want their systemic inflammation to be as low as possible.

Examples of inflammatory biomarkers:

  • CRP
  • ferritin
  • ESR
  • homocysteine
  • uric acid
  • triglycerides
  • HDL
  • platelets
  • neutrophils or leukocytes
  • insulin

Atherosclerosis and Inflammation

In regards to heart health, atherosclerosis isn’t a death sentence. Most of us will develop it, and less than half of us will suffer heart attacks or other complications because of it.

Preventing atherosclerosis is what I do in my program – that’s my main goal. But most of those who come to me already have atherosclerosis.

Plaque and inflammation have an essential relationship in heart health which I address with this second group. I want to decrease their total body inflammation to allow newly formed plaques or old plaques to stabilize.

Other Inflammatory Markers

No need to do these blood tests. Even without serology, we can tell if someone has inflammation.

The following are inflammatory markers I use based on signs and symptoms:

  • obesity
  • acne
  • rosacea
  • seborrheic dermatitis
  • joint pain
  • fatigue
  • sleep disturbance
  • agitation
  • sound sensitivity
  • GI changes
  • heavy menses
  • concentration issues

As you can imagine, these are rather subjective. Even if you have a little bit of all of this it doesn’t mean there is inflammation.

We use these data points as a guide. With them, we change our diet and lifestyle and reevaluate. If these markers decrease, then inflammation is likely.

Categories
Heart Attacks Heart Health Statins

Statins for Heart Disease Prevention

Statins are prescribed either for existing heart disease or to prevent heart disease. Preventing heart disease is referred to as a primary prevention strategy. Let’s discuss if statins for heart disease prevention are as effective as advertised and what other factors one should consider.

Statins to Prevent Heart Disease

Statins have gone through a lot of recommendation changes over the years. Some statins stand out more than others.

But there are still a lot of disagreements when it comes to using statins for the prevention of heart disease. This means using a statin for someone who is otherwise healthy but wants to prevent a heart attack.

In western medicine, it’s the standard of care to prescribe this medication to individuals with high cholesterol or diabetes, hoping it will prevent a heart attack.

The Actual Numbers

Think back to your high school class. Let’s say you had 150 people in that class. If everyone in that class took a statin to prevent a stroke, then only 1 out of 150 would benefit.

In other words, 150 people would have to be treated to prevent 1 stroke. And 100 would have to be treated to prevent 1 heart attack.

We refer to this as the NNT – the number needed to treat.

The Harm of Statins

Fortunately, statins are relatively safe medications. Yes, some people develop terrible side effects with them. Some even can develop diabetes or muscle or liver damage.

Obviously, we wouldn’t prescribe medication unless it was absolutely necessary. If only those who really needed this medication took it, the risk of statins would be far lower than its benefits.

But the actual harms of this medication – 1 in 50 would potentially develop diabetes, and 1 in 10 would develop muscle pains or damage.

Preventing Heart Disease

So what does work if not statins?

Controlling your blood pressure, eating a healthy diet, and maintaining a healthy activity level seems to decrease your risk of a heart attack.

Other factors like stress and cholesterol matter but are closely tied to your diet and activity levels.

The Individual Factor

As a physician, I don’t like talking about medication or an illness in general terms. Each person is unique, and all things matter. I learned this phrase from my functional nutrition course.

Each person is unique, so we must approach each person’s risk factors and decisions individually.

All things matter means that the patient’s individual abilities and lifestyle factors determine what intervention we choose or don’t choose.

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