What You Need to Know About Inflammation

Your tape measure may be one of the most effective tools you have for measuring your heart health. Without any screenings or trips to the doctor's office, you can obtain a measurement that can determine if you have inflammation and a predisposed risk to heart attacks or stroke.


What Inflammation Means and Why It Can be Bad for Your Body


"Inflammation" is a general term that refers to the body's immune response to an injury. When your biological system is healthy and in sync, indicators of inflammation including pain, redness and swelling call on your immune system to begin the healing process.


However, when it comes to heart health, inflammation is triggered when your blood vessels (arteries) become injured from exposure to risk factors such as smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity.


This ongoing exposure causes atherosclerosis, which is the hardening and cholesterol build up in arteries that causes heart attacks, heart damage, and strokes. Atherosclerosis is considered an inflammatory disease that occurs as a response to injury from exposure to these risk factors.


Chronic inflammation predisposes people to many health problems, including heart attack and stroke and can be linked to certain cancers and to complications of chronic diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and periodontal (gum) disease. The good news is that inflammation is something you can control to help reduce your risk for heart disease and other illnesses.


Inflammation and Your Waistline


Dr. James Stein, Director of the UW Health Preventive Cardiology Program, encourages patients to understand how they can reduce inflammation in their bodies to help prevent heart attacks and strokes. Unlike cholesterol levels or blood pressure, symptoms of inflammation are visible. Dr. Stein says, "Inflammation is right in front of our eyes. Just look at your waistline."


Learn how to properly measure your waistline


He explains, "Belly fat is the most obvious measure of inflammation. People who carry their weight in the middle have higher levels of inflammation in their blood because of hormones released by fat cells. These hormones released from belly fat cells make blood cholesterol and triglyceride (blood fat) levels rise, increase blood sugar and blood pressure, and cause other problems." He adds, "Similarly, smoking causes immediate injury to the arteries and lungs, provoking an inflammatory response that causes further damage."


If you want to measure inflammation, simply grab your tape measure! Dr. Stein says, "If you are female and your waist circumference is over 35 inches, or male and your waist circumference is over 40 inches, you most likely have higher than normal levels of inflammation and this is cause for concern."


The recommended values are lower in Asian Americans (31 and 35 inches respectively). Though blood tests including the high-sensitivity C reactive protein levels (hs-CRP test) are available for measuring inflammation, these tests generally are not used unless the results would change the medical recommendations for the patient.


How You Can Reduce Inflammation


If you are concerned about your waistline and risks of inflammation, Dr. Stein recommends that you take action:

  • Quit smoking! Get the support you need to quit for good. Find tips to help
  • Lose your belly fat. If you are overweight, you need to lose weight, especially belly fat. When you lose weight you will reduce the release of the harmful hormones from fat that cause inflammation in the blood and blood vessels.
  • Include physical activity in your day. Exercise encourages the production of natural antioxidants that reduce inflammation and help promote weight loss and improve blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. Exercise recommendations will vary based on your individual needs and goals. In general, aim for 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days. Check out tips on Nutrition and Weight Management
  • Eat your fruits and vegetables! – Eat more produce that is high in flavonoids, the natural antioxidants that reduce inflammation. Foods that can help prevent heart and blood vessel disease include:
    • Purple grapes
    • Dark berries (blueberries, plums, dark cherries)
    • Soy and soy nut
    • Green tea
    • Onions
    • Spinach
    • Small (moderate) amounts of dark chocolate (>70% cocoa) and red wines, unless you are overweight or at risk for medical problems from these substances

You can measure your progress and success by measuring your waistline. If you are concerned about inflammation and your risk for heart attack or stroke, speak to your health care provider to learn more about how you can manage your risks and improve your heart health.