We used to think that atherosclerosis (AT) was caused by an excessive amount of cholesterol floating around in the body, and eating a diet low in fat and cholesterol would lower the risk. Classic risk factors of developing AT include gender (males), obesity, elevated blood pressure, diabetes and smoking. But those of us with autoimmune diseases typically do not have the classic risk factors of AT. Research over the last several years has uncovered that both inflammation and the immune system play significant roles in the development of AT. Additionally, AT and autoimmune diseases share similar inflammatory pathways which explains the increase in heart disease and heart related conditions in people with autoimmune diseases (1).
I am personally affected by this increased risk because of my Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). RA and other autoimmune diseases that attack the joints, connective tissue and organs, including lupus (SLE) and psoriasis are at very high risk of suffering from a heart attack. A recent study uncovered that mice injected with a psoriasis-like disease had stiffer blood vessels and high-density lipoproteins (HDL, which carry cholesterol out of your body) moved out of the blood at a slower pace. Mice also fed a high cholesterol diet developed larger cholesterol deposits in their blood vessels (2). Another study also looked at relative risks of a heart-related event across several autoimmune diseases and found SLE to have the highest risk among all of them studied (3).
Does this mean that those of us with autoimmune diseases have a heart disease-related death sentence coming for us? Absolutely not. Diet and lifestyle can play a major role in reducing your risk. Focus on these three things to help you live a long and healthy life:
Eat a Nutrient Dense Diet
Nutrient dense is what it sounds like, choose foods that are full of nutrients. This includes fruits, vegetables and whole grains, beans, dairy, legumes, nuts and seeds if tolerated. All of these foods are full of important vitamins and minerals to support your body, and many of them contain antioxidants to help reduce inflammation. Foods that you want to avoid are the processed foods. These include anything with multiple ingredients that you cannot pronounce, foods with added sugars (check the nutrition label for this line item), additives and preservatives like gums, carrageenan, nitrates or nitrites, artificial colors and flavors, and artificial sweeteners. These foods can wreak havoc on your gut and increase intestinal permeability, which may trigger an inflammatory response (4).
Moving your body is essential for heart health. Being active can lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and can also help reduce inflammation. Just 150 minutes per week will be enough to get you started. If movement is new for you, start off slow. Walking just 20 minutes a day will get you very close to that target number. Don’t have 20 minutes? There are easy ways to add more steps in. For instance, park far away from the grocery store to walk more, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or even adopt a furry pet who needs to be walked daily (5).
Bust Your Stress Levels
Stress causes inflammation. Stress also causes your cortisol hormones to stay elevated longer than they should, which raises your blood sugar levels. Elevated blood sugar level is a risk factor for heart disease, and when your blood sugar is elevated, it makes it that much harder to lose weight, another risk factor for heart disease. Stress management is very personal and it may take a bit of trial and error to figure out what works best for you. Meditation, yoga, spending time in nature, and journaling are all great ways to start reducing your stress.
Having an autoimmune disease does raise your risk of AT, but it is not the end all be all. Focusing on healthy eating patterns and removing inflammatory foods, moving your body and reducing stress, you can absolutely reduce your risk and improve your autoimmune disease. For more information on heart disease and risk factors, please go here to learn more. If you need help with changing your own habits to protect your heart and body, click here to book a FREE discovery call with me.