When most people think about monitoring their heart health, they think about their cholesterol levels. And yes, it is true that cholesterol can to a point reflect the state of your cardiovascular system, it is an oversimplification to think it is the only factor. Recent research in the past 5-10 years clearly points to some other very valuable markers that help us to understand cardiovascular health to a much deeper degree. Combining these markers with traditional cholesterol values gives the most comprehensive assessment of cardiovascular health from blood work.
Inflammation plays a large part in the development and progression of atherosclerosis. The process of building a plaque is as much due to having excess lipids as it is to having the inflammation to fuel the advancement of that plaque formation. People at risk for heart disease, or just wanting to know their current risk factors, now need to start considering lab tests other than just cholesterol and triglyceride levels to account for the inflammation factor.
For the time being, one of the most valuable tests for assessing inflammation, especially of the blood vessels, is called C-Reactive Protein. People with elevated lipid levels can have up to a 4-fold increased risk for a heart attack. People with elevated lipid levels and elevated C-reactive protein levels can have up to an 8-fold increase for heart attack. C-Reactive Protein is a marker for inflammation in the entire body, but seems to be of particular importance when looking at cardiovascular health and blood vessel inflammation.
There are several nutritional factors that can help reduce inflammation in the body. Paying attention to the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the diet is very important. Typical American diets are heavily skewed towards omega-6 fatty acids which are found in animal proteins, trans-fats, grains and refined carbohydrates. Omega-6 acids can be metabolized to arachidonic acid, one of the most inflammatory substances found in our bodies. Omega-3’s on the other hand, found in wild fish and wild game, are metabolized to the most anti-inflammatory substances found in the body.
Homocysteine is an amino acid normally produced in small amounts by the body. When homocysteine exceeds certain levels, it begins to destroy the cells that line blood vessels and stimulate the formation of atherosclerotic plaques. Homocysteine may be elevated in some people due to certain genetic anomalies. However, in most of the population high homocysteine levels are due to a poor diet lacking in folic acid and other B vitamins. Eating junk food, fast food, high sugar foods and not eating enough fresh fruits and vegetables will promote excessive homocysteine blood levels. Eating a diet of healthful foods like leafy greens and fresh vegetables rich in folate and B-vitamins can help reduce levels of homocysteine.
Asking your doctor for C-Reactive protein levels as well as homocysteine levels are an important part of assessing cardiovascular risk factors.