According to Dr. Grayver, a cardiologist at Northwell Health in New York, poor stress management is the worst habit for inflammation. Why? In part because stress causes the release of the stress hormone known as cortisol.
“Cortisol is one of those things that goes and disrupts the inner layer of our vasculature and creates unstable plaque,” Dr. Grayver says.
Wait—isn’t plaque a dental problem? Yes, but it’s also a cardiovascular issue. Dr. Grayver says that many people have stable plaque, which progresses slowly.
“When there’s inflammation, cortisol is released, it seeps out into our vasculature and it destroys that nice, contained fibrous cap sitting on top of the stable plaque and turns it into unstable plaque.”
Unstable plaque can become a problem quickly. “It’s the yucky plaque that breaks off, flows downward and causes things like stroke and heart attack,”.
It can also increase blood pressure, sugar and cholesterol, which can also heighten the risk of heart attack and stroke. “Stress causes a vicious cascade,” Dr. Grayver emphasizes.
That being said, some stress is OK—good, even.
“Some stress is normal and allows us to achieve greater goals and create certain things,”. “Severe, chronic stress is what I want to hone in on. That can have a significant impact on heart health in multiple ways.”
What’s the difference? “Normal stress has more goal orientation,” she says. “It’s not the kind of stress keeping you up at night, leading you to make unhealthy choices or have horrible chronic fatigue.”
Other Habits That Can Negatively Impact Inflammation
Stress isn’t great, and reducing it is one way to lower your risk for inflammation. But Dr. Grayver says other lifestyle habits factor into inflammation.
Smoking is a big no-no for various reasons, including inflammation related to heart health. “It’s one of the unhealthiest habits,” Dr. Grayver says. “The chemicals in the tobacco [are terrible for you].”
Drinking too much alcohol can also increase inflammation.
“I’m not talking about one glass,” Dr. Grayver says. The CDC advises men to limit alcohol use to two drinks per day and women to stick to one. (A drink is defined as a 5 oz. glass of wine, 12 oz. glass of beer, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.) Dr. Grayver says anything more starts the inflammatory cascade. A 2017 review linked high alcohol consumption to inflammation.
Diet can also increase inflammation and the risk for heart disease risk, but Dr. Grayver says figuring out the best one for you can be a challenge.
“I was at a grocery store the other day,” she says. “There were 14 magazines displayed, and 12 of them mentioned the ‘heart-healthy diet.’”
Diets Dr. Grayver recommends include vegan, DASH and the Mediterranean Diet. Each is a bit different—vegan means no animal products, whereas Mediterranean and DASH are less rigid, for example. But the common ties include low sodium and an emphasis on fruits, veggies, nuts and lean—preferably plant-based—proteins.
Dr. Grayver noted people got into the habit of skipping regular check-ups during the COVID-19 pandemic. If that sounds familiar, it’s time to make an appointment—your doctor can catch symptoms of inflammation and heart disease, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol and biomarkers. Together, you can work to manage inflammation before it becomes worse.
The kicker? Stress makes people more likely to make these types of choices, Dr. Grayver says.
“It’s then easy to fall back on unhealthy coping mechanisms, like poor diet choices, alcohol and smoking,” she says.
What Is the Best Habit for Inflammation?
Dr. Grayver says exercise does the mind and body good, in part, by reducing stress. “I’m someone who has never been good at meditation, but when I exercise and do breathing during my run, that to me is meditating,” Dr. Grayver says.
Finding the right exercise routine for you is important, though. “There is not a cookie-cutter approach to anything, not in medicine, not in personal lifestyle,” Dr. Grayver says. “It’s important for people to find what works for them and makes them happy. If it works and makes them happy, they’ll continue it long-term.”