Inflammation Raises Your Risk of Stroke

Inflammation has been the latest buzzword when it comes to understanding the real cause of stroke. And the attention and blame that is being heaped upon inflammation as a culprit in stroke is well deserved and long overdue. Chronic inflammation contributes to the build up of heart disease, carotid artery disease and cerebrovascular disease, eventually resulting in disabling and life-threatening strokes.

The good news is that the more we learn about the link between inflammation and stroke, the more we understand how you can prevent inflammation from developing in the first place and from seriously affecting your health. It turns out that lifestyle changes can substantially reduce inflammation, improving your overall wellness and preventing a stroke from happening.

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is the body's way of fighting off infection and healing injury. If you become wounded or if your body becomes exposed to an infectious organism (a virus or a bacteria, for example), your immune system kicks in by producing a number of different types of white blood cells and proteins that work together to fight off the infection before it becomes too severe. This immune response, called inflammation, literally works to save your life. The proteins and white blood cells produced during your inflammatory immune response stick to harmful materials, trapping them and destroying them.

Inflammation also acts to heal and repair injuries throughout your body.

But if you don't have an injury that your body needs to heal and if you don’t have an infection that you need to fight off, inflammation is a nuisance that essentially causes more harm than good by 'fixing something that isn't broken.' So inflammation has its rightful place, but unnecessary and excessive inflammation actually harms the body.

 

Inflammation as a predictor of stroke 

Inflammation is so harmful, that the presence of increased inflammation in the body is actually a stroke predictor. One recent study examined the cause of atherosclerosis, which is the blood vessel disease that predisposes to stroke. It turns out that having an elevated number and a high variety of inflammatory cells leads to the development of atherosclerosis.

Another study, published in The Journal of Cerebrovascular Disease, evaluated 254 patients with carotid artery stenosis, a known stroke risk factor. The patients with carotid artery stenosis who had a higher white blood cell count and a higher neutrophil count, two markers of inflammation, were more likely to have strokes or TIAs than those who had carotid artery stenosis without inflammation.

How does inflammation contribute to stroke?

When the proteins and white blood cells characteristic of inflammation are produced in excess, they destroy the inner lining of your blood vessels by using mechanisms similar to the methods they use to destroy harmful viruses and bacteria.

When the blood vessels become very ragged on the inside, blood does not flow as smoothly, and blood clots are more likely to become trapped. This disease of the inner lining of the blood vessels is called atherosclerosis. And the inherent stickiness of inflammatory cells and inflammatory proteins can make the red blood cells, platelets, fats and cholesterol in your body more prone to clinging to each other and forming harmful blood clots. These blood clots then obstruct blood vessels in the heart and in the brain, causing disabling and life-threatening strokes and heart attacks.

There are 2 main causes for excessive inflammation. 

People with autoimmune diseases such as lupus, psoriasis and alopecia areata have a high degree of inflammation – and, incidentally, experience a higher risk of stroke. If you have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, the best way to prevent a stroke is by getting good medical management of your inflammatory disease through recommendations and follow ups with your doctor. Most of the time, this requires prescription medications, at least for some periods of time.

However, lifestyle factors can also considerably increase inflammation, raising your risk of stroke. Chronic stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are both associated with high levels of inflammation and with an increased risk of stroke. Stress, which obviously is not something that you have control over, alters the hormonal response of your body, ironically diminishing your immune system, but producing damage that triggers an inflammatory response.

Exposure to toxins in the environment is also linked to inflammation and increased stroke risk. Toxins cause microscopic damage to the cells, prompting your body to try to repair it through an inflammatory reaction. And harmful foods such as trans fats increase inflammation in the body and raise the risk of stroke. 

All of these are lifestyle factors because they are not hereditary. The lifestyle factors cause inflammation by releasing chemical toxins in the body that injure the inside of blood vessels. Thus, inflammation is the body’s way of repairing the repeated, tiny injuries that are produced by stress, environmental toxins and damage from exposure to chemicals such as trans fats. And another surprising finding is that inflammation leads to tissue damage, which ultimately leads to even more inflammation during the repair process, creating a cycle of atherosclerotic disease that can take a long time to reverse. 

How can you prevent inflammation?

The most effective ways to reduce excessive inflammation related to disease, to lifestyle or to environmental factors is by maintaining a diet that is rich in antioxidants, which combat inflammatory damage. Fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally rich in antioxidants. Some other sources of antioxidants include red wine, chocolate, coffee and tea. They work by neutralizing harmful chemicals in the body that can cause disease such as stroke, heart attack and cancer.

Relaxation and exercise have also been shown to reverse the harmful effects of inflammation on the body, although the exact mechanism is not completely clear.

However, as much as we know about inflammation and the ways to prevent inflammation, there is no magic formula or ratio of anti-inflammatory activities vs. activities that cause inflammation that you can use as a benchmark or ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ effects on your body. In general, the more you are aware of the harmful effects of inflammation and the more you do to keep inflammation under control, the lower your risk of stroke. 

 

Sources:

Is Elevated Neutrophil-to-Lymphocyte Ratio a Predictor of Stroke in Patients with Intermediate Carotid Artery Stenosis?,Köklü E, Yüksel İÖ, Arslan Ş, Bayar N, Çağırcı G, Gencer ES, Alparslan AŞ, Çay S, Kuş G, The Journal of stroke and Cerebrovascular Disease, December 2015

 

The Role of Blood-Borne Microparticles in Inflammation and Hemostasis, Suades R, Padró T, Badimon L, Seminars in Thrombosis and Hemostasis, September 2015

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