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So, I decided to take a bit of a detour in this series. Don’t worry, we’ll get back to the five elements of heart disease tomorrow, but in order for you to understand the nutritional aspects of avoiding heart disease, you have to have an understanding of all the factors that contribute to heart disease. And this is where you might be a bit surprised.
Vessel Wall Damage from Inflammation and Hypertension
More and more research is being done on inflammation and its role in numerous chronic diseases, including heart disease. These days, lots of people are walking around with chronic, low levels of inflammation. This low level inflammation is basically a constant immune activation without an infectious source. The activated cells of the immune system travel around the body, but without any pathogen to fight, they end up attacking healthy tissues. When it comes to heart disease, the immune cells end up attacking your blood vessels. They become irritated and inflamed, which makes it that much easier for circulating fatty acids to get caught on the damaged tissue. Once the fatty acids form a plaque, the inflammation doesn’t stop. It’s still there, slowing eating away at the blood vessels and the plaques that have formed. Eventually, the plaque destabilizes, breaks off, and travels to any number of locations: the lungs, the brain, or the heart. Or, maybe it doesn’t break off, but it gets large enough to completely block the flow of blood through the vessel. When this happens in your brain, its a stroke, when it happens in your heart, its a heart attack.
Hypertension can also damage your vessel walls. Think of it as a plumbing system. When the water is pumping through the pipes at a gentle, slow speed, there isn’t a whole lot of turbulence. If its rushing through at high pressure, the water slams against the walls of the pipes as it travels down the system. Same with your blood vessels. If you have high blood pressure, your blood is coursing through your veins at very high pressures. Over time, these high pressures cause damage to the vessel walls themselves. The immune system senses the damage and comes to repair it, but if you have continual immune activation and silent inflammation, this can result in even more damage.
Trans Fats and Partially Hydrogenated Fats Have Abnormal Structures
Another possible way to develop heart disease is by ingesting too many trans fats and partially hydrogenated fats. You see, these fats are unnatural, their chemical structure is different, but the body will still take them up and use them. The problem is that these fats are then used to build your cell membranes. The abnormal fats get incorporated into the cell walls, but they’re a bit different than they should be. The immune cells recognize the malformed cell walls, and mounts an attack. More damage occurs, platelets are brought to the site, and the cycle continues. Eventually you get the same result, either a blocked vessel, or a plaque that breaks off and can travel to one of your vital organs.
Cholesterol and Saturated Fats
What about cholesterol and saturated fats? What role do they play in the development of heart disease? Well, as I discussed in my post Why I’m not Afraid of Lard, saturated fats and cholesterol have been a convenient scapegoat for heart disease, but when you get down to it and look at the numbers, it just isn’t true. In fact, half of all heart attack victims have normal cholesterol levels. So, does that mean you can eat whatever fats you want, however much you want, and not worry about a heart attack? Definitely not. Fat consumption does contribute to heart disease, just not in the way that you’ve been told. Check back tomorrow for an in depth discussion of fat and its role in the development of heart disease.
C. Gorman, A. Park. Inflammation is a Secret Killer: The surprising link between inflammation and asthma, heart attacks, cancer, Alzheimer’s and other diseases. Time, July 2004.
J. Brody. Hunt for Heart Disease Tracks a New Suspect, New York Times, January 6, 2004.