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For decades, doctors have been fixated on cholesterol and blood pressure as the key to controlling heart disease among their patients. While high cholesterol and hypertension can be dangerous and are factors, they are really only biomarkers of the disease, rather than the causes.

Reducing cholesterol and blood pressure is great, but by doing so, doctors are merely treating the symptoms and ignoring the real reason behind the disease. In fact, one 2011 study looked at people who had suffered a heart attack and found that nearly three-quarters of them had normal cholesterol readings.

So what is the real culprit in heart disease? There is never just one cause of any disease but inflammation is a key player in cardiovascular disorders. In simple terms, the mechanism is as follows: Chronic inflammation can exist internally without us being aware of it. This causes our blood vessels literally to become sticky and this stickiness attracts white blood cells and cholesterol to the inner lining of the blood vessels where they attach themselves and create fatty plaques. These plaques can exist for years or a lifetime without causing any trouble. However, problems occur if inflammation is perpetuated, causing the plaques to grow and block blood vessels or causing the caps sealing the plaques to weaken and break off – almost like a dormant volcano suddenly erupting. Ruptured plaques can lead to blockages and strokes.

Meanwhile, whenever there is inflammation, blood vessels will constrict (hypertension) and the body will also make more cholesterol. In this scenario, it’s not so much that there is too much cholesterol, but that this cholesterol becomes damaged by free radicals and in a viscous cycle creates more inflammation, more plaques and more damage.

This all sounds very alarming but reducing inflammation is not as difficult as it seems and goes a long way to cutting your risk of heart disease and many other chronic diseases, such as cancer.

Top 3 anti-inflammatory foods:

Oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel. Better still, take a good quality high-potency fish oil every day. The omega 3 fatty acids in fish oil are our natural way of dampening down inflammation and stopping it from getting out of control.

All fruits and vegetables. Aiming to fill half of your plate with vegetables and some fruit for every meal will increase your antioxidant intake which will tone down inflammation.

Nuts and seeds. These make a great sugar-free snack and the good monounsaturated fats they contain have been shown to reduce inflammation, blood pressure and cholesterol. Don’t forget also to pay attention to your stress as this can push up your blood pressure, and increase cholesterol and inflammation. Build some ‘me time’ into your day and make relaxation an essential part of your routine.

If you are worried about your risk of heart disease, you can ask your doctor to run a blood test for C-reactive protein. This is a simple, commonly used test which will give you a good gauge of your inflammation levels.

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