Numerous media stories have covered the discovery of an increased risk for heart disease in patients who have an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases encompass a number of conditions, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and even inflammatory bowel disease.
In very simple terms, autoimmune disease occurs when the body’s immune system overreacts and mistakenly attacks the body as if it were a threat like viruses, cancer cells, or harmful bacteria. When this happens, an excess of inflammation can build up in the body and, depending on which condition you have, a disease is born.
Where heart disease comes into play in autoimmune conditions appears to be in the area of coronary artery disease. The theory goes that because people with autoimmune disease often have chronic inflammation and excess serum acute-phase proteins, cytokines, and cell adhesion molecules, they may suffer damage to the walls of their arteries.
In coronary artery disease, damage and inflammation of the arteries alone, or in combination with deposits of cholesterol (plaques), will begin to narrow the arteries. Eventually, this could lead to a heart attack. So where does that leave patients with inflammatory bowel disease?
Here are a few tips to help you mitigate the risk of coronary artery disease:
Reduce your overall risk for coronary artery disease by eating a heart-healthy diet.
Try to maintain a healthy weight to prevent comorbid conditions.
Stop smoking if you are a smoker, and avoid secondhand smoke if you live with a smoker.
Keep your inflammation in check by keeping regular appointments with your physician to deal with your IBD before it becomes a full on flare-up.
Know the symptoms of heart disease, including fatigue, chest pain, shortness of breath, and nausea, among others.
If you have any concerns at all, contact your physician immediately. If you have a new or worsening symptom, seek emergency care.
Not everyone who has an autoimmune disease will go on to develop coronary artery disease, but knowing the potential for an increased risk is important; that way patients can work to establish a plan with their physician to reduce their risk as much as possible.
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Jennifer Rackley is a nutritionist and mother of three girls. Two of her children have dealt with acid reflux disease, food allergies, migraines, and asthma. She has a Bachelor of Science in dietetics from Harding University and has done graduate work in public health and nutrition through Eastern Kentucky University. In addition to writing for HealthCentral, she does patient consults and serves on the Board of Directors for the Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association.