Inflammation – or not
Over the last few years there has been a significant shift, from many researchers, towards the idea that atherosclerosis is an inflammatory process, to a greater or lesser extent. Below is a quote from a cardiac surgeon. A man who admits he was wrong about cholesterol being the main underlying cause CVD, so I can applaud him for that. He goes on to say:
‘Simply stated, without inflammation being present in the body, there is no way that cholesterol would accumulate in the wall of the blood vessel and cause heart disease and strokes. Without inflammation, cholesterol would move freely throughout the body as nature intended. It is inflammation that causes cholesterol to become trapped.
Inflammation is not complicated — it is quite simply your body’s natural defence to a foreign invader such as a bacteria, toxin or virus. The cycle of inflammation is perfect in how it protects your body from these bacterial and viral invaders. However, if we chronically expose the body to injury by toxins or foods the human body was never designed to process, a condition occurs called chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is just as harmful as acute inflammation is beneficial.’1
And so on and so forth. More recently, a friend and fellow cholesterol sceptic, Aseem Malhotra, was lead author on an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine entitled: ‘Saturated fat does not clog the arteries: coronary heart disease is a chronic inflammatory condition, the risk of which can be effectively reduced from healthy lifestyle interventions.’
A major statin study called JUPITER, was designed to look at lowering C-reactive protein with rosuvastatin, to see if this would lower the risk of CVD – in those with low or normal cholesterol levels. C-reactive protein (CRP) is a non-specific marker of inflammation. To quote the lead investigator:
‘The recent JUPITER trial demonstrated that potent statin therapy reduces by 50 % the risk of heart attack and stroke among men and women with low levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL)-cholesterol who are at increased vascular risk due to elevated levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a biomarker of low-grade systemic inflammation. In JUPITER, both absolute risk and the absolute risk reduction with statin therapy were related to the level of CRP, whereas no such relationship was observed for LDL-C.’2
I could find another ten thousand papers all stating that CVD is caused by inflammation. Case proven? Well, the case is certainly proven, beyond doubt, that atherosclerosis is strongly associated with inflammation in the arterial wall. To which my response would be… and so what exactly?
If you twist your ankle, and tear ligaments, you will also find a great deal of inflammation in the surrounding area. You would, however, be stretching reality to suggest inflammation is the underlying cause of ankle ligament damage. I suppose you could try.
In my simple little world, inflammation is a result of underlying damage. It is not, and cannot be the underlying cause. Inflammation is a manifestation of the body attempting to heal itself. In fact, whenever I see the word inflammation, I mentally replace it with the word ‘healing.’ For many years I have smiled enigmatically at the widely accepted advice following a badly sprained ankle. RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). These are all ways of reducing inflammation, sorry, healing.
Just looking at the ‘I’ in RICE. Ice:
‘Ice works by decreasing the blood flow to an area, thus temporarily diminishing the swelling and inflammation that accompanies most injuries —- (when the tissue re-warms … the inflammatory process resumes). But in the 1970s we knew very little about the healing process. We did not understand that inflammation is actually a very important initiating event of the overall healing process.
When you are injured, the blood vessels to the area dilate. That causes the swelling and warmth you notice. The increase in blood flow brings with it very potent chemicals, proteins and cells. Those chemicals and cells set off a cascade of reactions that we refer to as inflammation. More importantly, this is also what initiates the HEALING process. Yes, inflammation is a necessary part of the healing process. The inflammation chemicals send a message to other cells to come to the injured area… they also wake up sleeping or dormant cells already residing in the area of the injury. Those cells in turn start to repair the ligament, muscle or skin at the site of injury.’3
‘Finally, conventional sports medicine catches up with Chinese traumatology. In Chinese medicine, we NEVER recommend ice for injuries. Simple physics will tell you that ice applications will constrict blood vessels which will reduce blood flow to the injury, meaning less waste products removed and less nutrition delivered therefore slower healing.’4
I say, reduce inflammation at your peril. You may reduce the swelling, and some of the bruising, and things will certainly look less ‘damaged’. But, again, so what. Two billion years of evolution have created some pretty effective healing processes, which we also call inflammation. Interfere with inflammation, and the results are predictable.
The most powerful anti-inflammatory agents known to man are corticosteroids, so called as they are all synthesized around the base compound, cortisol (a corticosteroid). Medically they are used in a number of auto-immune/inflammatory conditions, ranging from rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, eczema, lupus, transplant organ rejection and suchlike [Asthma is a bit different].
In these conditions, there is a rationale for reducing inflammation. Here, we have the body ‘seeing’ various proteins as alien, and attacking them, through an ‘auto-immune’ response. Yes, there is inflammation. However, this is not the body trying to repair itself. This is the immune system causing damage, by attacking the body itself, with resulting inflammation. In short, do not confuse inflammation with inflammation.
However, if inflammation were the underlying cause of CVD, then corticosteroids should reduce the risk of CVD, as they are the most potent anti-inflammatories known to man. But they very much do not. A paper was published recently, called ‘Can machine-learning improve cardiovascular risk prediction using routine clinical data?’ A fascinating paper indeed. The purpose was, as follows:
‘Current approaches to predict cardiovascular risk fail to identify many people who would benefit from preventive treatment, while others receive unnecessary intervention. Machine-learning offers opportunity to improve accuracy by exploiting complex interactions between risk factors. We assessed whether machine-learning can improve cardiovascular risk prediction.’
I have not written about this paper before, although it identified LDL as completely irrelevant in predicting CVD risk, and the risks it did identify were almost completely different from those in the current risk calculators. In fact, the number one risk factor of cardiovascular risk was Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). I have never seen this on any risk calculator before, and I am trying to digest the implications.
However, getting back on track, the main point of interest here is looking at number three on the list of factors that can increase CVD risk:
Oral corticosteroid prescribed
At number eight:
Immunosuppressants are also designed, effectively, to impair the inflammatory response. They are used in much the same sort of conditions as steroids. In fact, corticosteroids could also be termed immunosuppressants.
The highly damaging effect of corticosteroids, or other drugs designed to suppress the immune response, should not really come as any surprise. There is a medical condition called Cushing’s disease, in which too much cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands. The impact of Cushing’s disease on CVD is to increase the risk by, at least, 500%. 5
Other anti-inflammatory drugs have similar, if less spectacular effects, on CVD risk. The FDA recently increased the warning level on non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Drugs such as ibuprofen, naproxen, diclofenac.
‘The FDA is strengthening an earlier warning about the cardiovascular safety of non-aspirin non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), both prescription and non-prescription, the agency said Thursday. After a comprehensive review of new safety information, the FDA is requiring updates to the labels of all prescription NSAIDs to reflect recent information on risk of heart attack and stroke. Over-the-counter non-aspirin NSAIDs already contain some safety information, but the labels on these drugs will also require an update, said the FDA in its announcement posted online.
The new labels for prescription NSAIDs should contain the following information, according to the FDA:
- The risk of heart attack can occur within weeks of starting an NSAID, and that risk may increase with longer use.
- The risk seems to be higher at higher doses.
- It’s not clear if the risk of heart attack and stroke is the same for all NSAIDs.
- The drugs can raise the risk of heart attack or stroke in both patients with a risk of heart disease and patients without.
- Patients with heart disease or risk factors for it are at a greater risk of heart attack or stroke following the use of NSAIDs, because they have a higher risk at baseline.
- There is also an increased risk of heart failure for patients using NSAIDs.6
Of course, it can be argued, and it has, that steroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents have other potentially damaging effects on the CVD. Whilst this is undoubtedly true (to an extent), you would still not expect agents that are, primarily, anti-inflammatory, to vastly increase the risk of CVD. If CVD is an inflammatory disease.
Personally, think that the science here has been done. Agents designed to reduced inflammation all greatly increase the risk of CVD – from moderately to spectacularly*. Thus, whilst it is true that you can find inflammation within arteries where atherosclerosis is developing, this DOES NOT mean that the inflammation is causing the problem.
What you are seeing is the body trying to heal damage, and then getting cause and effect twisted through one hundred and eighty degrees. ‘That’s looks abnormal, let’s get rid of it’. A pretty good summary of a great deal of medical research over the last few hundred years, I suppose.
*aspirin is the exception. However, aspirin has strong anti-coagulant effects. It stops platelets sticking together. In this way, the anti-coagulant effects of aspirin, outweigh the damaging anti-inflammatory effect.