Unfortunately, most of us know someone who has been diagnosed with diabetes or prediabetes, the condition that precedes the full-blown disease. Perhaps you’re dealing with one of these issues yourself. If so, you know that you need to keep your glucose and insulin levels in check to ward off damage to almost every part of your body, including your eyes, kidneys and nerves. What you may not know is that in addition to high blood sugar, you likely also have elevated levels of inflammation. “That means you could be more at risk for a heart attack, stroke and certain other inflammatory conditions,” says Mark Liponis, M.D., corporate medical director at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass.
Inflammation is the response of an overactive immune system, which can be triggered by many factors, from illness to cigarette smoking to stress to poor sleep. It’s not yet known if inflammation causes diabetes or the other way around, or both, but some connection is evident. Researchers suspect that insulin—the hormone that helps shuttle sugar from your blood into your cells for energy—is an inflammatory protein, and that high insulin levels (a hallmark of diabetes) cause inflammation in the body, Dr. Liponis says. Without question, people with diabetes tend to have high levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a biomarker for chronic inflammation.
We are learning more and more about the significant role inflammation plays in concerns such as arthritis, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Diabetes and heart disease are closely linked, and inflammation appears to be the connection here too. Inflamed arteries in the heart respond differently to blood cholesterol, making it more likely that plaque will accumulate in the arterial walls. Once that plaque is formed in an artery, the immune system attacks it, causing it to rupture. The resulting blood clot can block the artery, causing a heart attack.
Adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to die of heart disease or experience a stroke. “That’s why somebody who is prediabetic or diabetic immediately becomes a candidate for baby aspirin, which thins the blood and prevents blood clots,” Dr. Liponis says.
There is an inspiring side to all of this, though. Even if you have diabetes, by controlling your inflammation levels, you’ll reduce your risk of developing other health conditions. Start by getting a high-sensitivity CRP test, which will help you and your doctor gauge how much inflammation is present in your body. (Harmful inflammation can be present even if you don’t feel it, and this test can detect low levels.) The American Heart Association says that levels less than 1 mg/L are desirable; levels between 1 and 3 mg/L are indicative of moderate risk; and levels of 3 mg/L or more suggest a large elevated risk. At Canyon Ranch, we consider an optimal result to be less than 0.7 m/L.
There are several ways you can quell inflammation—a good idea regardless of your CRP levels. Start by aiming for a healthy weight and getting regular exercise. It’s especially important to reduce belly fat because it puts out inflammatory substances. Focus on eating an inflammation-fighting diet that includes plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, which inhibit the production of inflammatory markers in fat cells. You can get omega-3s from oily fish (like salmon, Arctic char, sardines, herring or mackerel), fish oil and flax. It’s also wise to reduce stress, quit smoking and get restorative sleep. Our article, Inflammation: The Silent Risk Factor, shares more about strategies to calm your immune system and keep chronic diseases from becoming part of your future, whether or not you’re living with diabetes.