Do you have high cholesterol? You may know that it's found in our blood and critical for heart health. But cholesterol's relationship with inflammation is lesser-known—and they can work hand-in-hand to damage your body.
What is inflammation?Inflammation is your body’s way of protecting itself from harmful things like damaged cells, irritants, or pathogens. It plays a critical role in maintaining your body’s immune system and heart function, which means that it is responsible for keeping us healthy. However, excessive inflammation is common in heart disease and stroke patients, as it's believed to signal declining heart health. Exactly how inflammation plays a role in our cardiovascular system is a topic of ongoing research, but it seems that a heart under stress can result in an inflammatory response—which makes inflammation biomarkers good proxies for seeing how our heart is doing.
Inflammation affects everyone, particularly in our ability to stay healthy, feel good, and operate at peak performance. One of the best indicators of full-body inflammation is actually a protein circulating in our blood called called C-reactive protein, or CRP. Levels of CRP rise and fall in response to increases and decreases in inflammation, so your blood levels of CRP are actually a great way to peek into what’s going on in your body.
According to the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a CRP concentration of:
- Below 1.0 mg/L indicates low risk for heart problems;
- Between 1.0 to 3.0 mg/L is an average risk for heart problems;
- Above 3.0 mg/L as high risk for heart problems.
Very high levels of CRP (more than 10 mg/L) can also indicate impaired immune response or an inflammatory disease. White blood cells are another indicator of inflammation because they play an important role in your body’s immune system, searching the blood for invading viruses, bacteria, and fungi. The only way to truly determine if your CRP and white blood cell levels are too high is to get your blood tested. InsideTracker measures both of these biomarkers—in fact, InsideTracker actually tests high-sensitivity CRP (hsCRP), a particular type of CRP that's especially good at detecting inflammation.
What is cholesterol?Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is found in all cells of the body. You need some cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help you absorb nutrients. There are two different types of carriers that circulate cholesterol in our blood: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). These molecules are called lipoproteins because they contain both fat (aka "lipid") and protein.
High levels of LDL can result in excess cholesterol in your arteries, which are the blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to your body. Eventually, LDL cholesterol can break into the walls of your blood vessels and begin building up, causing the vessels to narrow. This process can restrict blood flow, increase blood pressure, and ultimately cause significant strain on the heart. This is why LDL is known as the "bad cholesterol."
In contrast, HDL acts as cholesterol scavengers, carrying cholesterol away from your blood vessels and back to the liver, which can then help you remove it from your body entirely. It's for this reason that HDL is known as the "good cholesterol."
High cholesterol is relatively common in modern culture, but it usually doesn't present any symptoms. That mean that, if you haven't gotten your blood cholesterol levels tested, you may be unknowingly walking around with high levels. The best way to get up-to-speed is to get your blood tested at your annual physical or from a program like InsideTracker, which measures total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and HDL cholesterol. InsideTracker also tests triglycerides, another type of fat in our blood that impacts heart health.
Some quick tips on cholesterol:
- The higher the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood, the greater your risk of poor heart health.
- The higher levels of HDL in your blood, the healthier your heart is likely to be.
- Your LDL cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/dL and your HDL levels should be at least 40 mg/dL.
- InsideTracker will tell you what your optimal range of total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol should be based on your demographics and fitness goals.
What is the connection between inflammation and high cholesterol?When excess LDL cholesterol seeps into your artery walls, it triggers an inflammatory response, which attracts fatty substances, blood-clotting materials, and white blood cells to the site. When these materials accumulate, plaque (which is a combination of fatty substances, cholesterol, cellular waste products, and calcium) can form, resulting in even further hardened arteries and another cycle of inflammation.
So, while inflammation is sometimes a protective and healing process, too much cholesterol can lead to a continuous state of inflammation, which is not beneficial for your arteries or your heart. Although it’s not proven that inflammation can directly result in cardiovascular disease, it’s common for heart disease and stroke patients to have high amounts of inflammation, so it’s important to monitor your associated biomarkers carefully.
What can you do about your cholesterol and inflammation levels?One of the most important steps you can take to improve your heart health is to know what’s happening inside your body by getting a blood test done, like from InsideTracker. This should be the first step in determining how to approach your heart health, as different levels of each related biomarker require different steps and changes.
What you eat also can have a huge impact on your heart, and you can decrease your risk of heart disease by avoiding foods that are high in unhealthy fat, calories, sugar, and salt (such as fast foods). Some foods, however, help to decrease inflammation, including garlic, grapes, herbs and spices, soy protein, nuts, olive oil, black and green teas, and vinegar. In order to lower your cholesterol, you can replace unhealthy fats (such as saturated and trans fats) with healthy ones and replace refined carbohydrates with whole grains.
If you have high cholesterol or inflammation, make sure you work with your health care provider to monitor your progress. Eating nutritious foods, along with getting regular exercise, can go a long way in helping you to keep your heart healthy!