Inflammation and Heart Disease

Did you know that if your arteries are burning with chronic inflammation, you could be headed for a heart attack? Can you douse these very dangerous flames? Find out.

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Our guests at the Pritikin Longevity Center often ask our physicians and other faculty: “What is inflammation? And how is it linked with my heart?”

Here is our reply:

Inflammation can be a very good thing. Think of inflammation like a burner on a gas stove. When you suffer an injury, like a cut on your finger, your body turns up the flame. Your immune system sends in an army of white blood cells that fight infection and promote healing. This is called local or acute inflammation.

Chronic inflammation and heart disease

But problems can occur for the heart when your body keeps that burner going. Minute by minute, day by day, it’s simmering away. This low, steady burn, known as chronic inflammation, is not caused by a single injury, like a close encounter with a paring knife. Rather, it’s the result of constant injury to the inner walls of our arteries, and it’s brought on by excess LDL (bad) cholesterol and other lifestyle-related factors like high blood pressure, high blood glucose, and smoking.


Here’s a closer look at what happens in the arterial pipeline. A surplus of LDL cholesterol, often the result of eating a lot of saturated-fat-rich food like red meat and cheese, burrows into the inner walls of the arteries, where it goes rancid (the scientific term is “oxidized”). Our body recognizes this invasion as an injury, so in rush white blood cells. They bore into the arterial wall, on the hunt for that injury. And they morph into PacMan-like cells that “gobble” up the LDL. Then, stuffed with LDL, they take up lodging in our arteries.

LDL-stuffed beasts

Now, keep in mind that because of our decades of eating the Standard American Diet – yes, SAD – the burn keeps burning, and the LDL-stuffed beasts keep growing and growing. First, they form fatty streaks throughout our arteries. Then, as more and more cholesterol accumulates, they become plaques, which can ultimately rupture and cause massive blood clotting, choking off blood flow to the heart, triggering a heart attack. Or they can cut off blood flow to the brain, causing a stroke.

In a way, it’s a story of good intentions (trying to heal an injury) gone very, very bad. Heart attack prevention is all about quelling these inflammatory flames.

Can the flames be doused?

Yes. This is the good news, and it’s very good news. There are markers in our body that indicate we are suffering chronic, low-level inflammation. Virtually all of these markers have been documented to decrease within three weeks of following the food and fitness guidelines of the Pritikin Program. Pritikin advocates daily exercise and an eating plan low in saturated and other damaging fats, and high in naturally nutrient-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans.

To date, the most widely researched of these markers of inflammation is C-reactive protein, or CRP. CRP is released into the bloodstream whenever there is a general infection in the body – anything from gum disease to a festering ingrown toenail.


But for our hearts, it’s the chronic, lower levels of CRP, indicative of chronic low-grade inflammation, that are of concern. Physicians refer to this form of CRP as high-sensitivity CRP, or hs-CRP.

According the American Heart Association, hs-CRP lower than 1 mg/L is low risk for heart disease, or atherosclerosis; 1 to 3 is average risk; higher than 3 is high risk. (A value higher than 10 indicates systemic infection, and the test needs to be repeated at a later date after the infection is treated.)

After just three weeks of eating and exercising at the Pritikin Longevity Center, hs-CRP among men decreased on average 39%, from 2.4 to 1.5 mg/L.1

Among women, hs-CRP plunged 45%, from 2.6 to 1.4 mg/L.2

Children benefited as well. Within two weeks at Pritikin, hs-CRP among overweight ages 9 to 16 fell on average 41%.3

Inflammatory cytokines, fat, and your heart

Other markers of inflammation are noxious chemicals released by both white blood cells and fat cells. They’re called inflammatory cytokines. They include tumor necrosis factor-alpha, interleukin-6, and interleukin-8.

In recently published research studying the blood samples of overweight children who attended the Pritikin Longevity Center, scientists at UCLA found that after just two weeks, inflammatory cytokines dropped significantly. Tumor necrosis factor-alpha fell on average 43%, interleukin-6 plummeted 56%, and interleukin-8 decreased 30%.4 Similar results, published in studies over the past 10 years, have been observed in adults attending the Pritikin Program.

Bottom Line: For prevention and control of heart disease, the Pritikin Program has proven effective in improving not only traditional risk factors, like LDL (bad) cholesterol, but also newly emerging ones, like pro-inflammatory factors.

1. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2006; 100: 1657

2. Metabolism, 2004; 53: 377

3. Atherosclerosis, 2007; 191: 98

4. American Journal of Physiology: Endocrinology and Metabolism ajpendo.00190.2012; published ahead of print June 19, 2012, doi:10.1152/ajpendo.00190.2012

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