Heart Disease: An Infection You Say?

I have been having a lot of conversations recently about heart disease with people both in my clinic and in my private life.  It seems like whenever I mention that I specialize in blood chemistry the first thing that comes to people’s mind is their cholesterol.  In fact, it seems like cholesterol is the largest concern that people have about their health these days!  I agree that factors like cholesterol can play an important role in the progression and onset of heart related incidents, but I have to keep asking myself why this one concept has gained so much weight over the other contributing factors.  The larger picture of heart/vascular disease goes way beyond the basic lipid panel that people think of when they think of cholesterol.  Indeed, when working up a patient for heart or vascular related health concerns (or prevention) I personally need to look at much more than just that simple lipid panel of total cholesterol, triglycerides, HDL & LDL to feel that I have done anything to screen for their wellness around the subject. 

The focus of this article is not to detail each and every part of a heart health wellness screen, but to briefly highlight one in particular.  Besides the fact that heart health can be dependant upon healthy sex hormone balance, healthy thyroid function, cholesterol particle size, homocysteine values, Lp(a) values, inflammatory conditions, autoimmune conditions and more, it can also be influenced by infection.  And there is one little bugger in particular that should be screened for in particular as a first matter of importance when considering this part of your health.

H. Pylori – What it is known for:

Helicobacter pylori is a type of bacteria that generally infects the lining of the digestive tract.  It is estimated that up to 3 billion people (50% of the population of the world) are infected with this bacteria making it the most widespread communicable pathogen known to man.  This infection can be passed via oral-oral transmission or oral-fecal transmission by way of unsanitary food handling practices or certain sexual behaviors. The most common signs and symptoms associated with H. Pylori are generally stomach related.  A person might present with heart burn/acid reflux, gastritis, and/or ulcers.  If a person has had an ulcer or currently has an ulcer, H. Pylori should be a prime suspect!   The same goes for chronic acid reflux.  If a person does present with these symptoms, terrible as they may be, it is a blessing.  They know there is a problem.   As it turns out, approximately 80% of H. Pylori positive people show no symptoms whatsoever! 

H. Pylori – What it should be known for:

So 80% of people show no symptoms. That’s great!  It is harmless right?  Well, no…  It isn’t.  The people who are positive for the infection and show no symptoms are at the highest risk for things like heart disease and stomach cancer.  The stomach cancer is a whole other discussion.  But the heart disease connection, now that’s something interesting!  How does a gut infection lead to an increased risk for heart disease?  The answer is in more ways than one.

  • H. Pylori will stimulate an immune response within the body, but this bacteria is quite tenacious and therefore very difficult to clear on your own.  This leaves the body in a constant state of increased inflammation.  We are designed to tolerate random surges of inflammatory stress to our systems but when inflammation goes long term problems begin to set in.  H. Pylori has that ability.  Chronic systemic inflammation like this won’t create outward symptoms, but can still work to inflame the blood vessels for example which can lead to vascular concerns.

  • H. Plyori has been shown to actually leave the gastro-intestinal system and enter the blood stream where it can now infect the blood vessels themselves.  This causes local irritation/damage on and within the arterial walls which attracts plaque formation as the body’s attempt to “protect” the damaged arterial surface.  This can even happen in a person with low or normal cholesterol.  Consequently there are other infections that can also infect the arteries such as Chlamydia pneumonia.  There are also viral infections to the same effect.

  • Lastly and a little less directly, any infection that resides in the digestive tract leads to inflammation locally to the intestinal tissues.  This can eventually result in what is known as “Leaky Gut Syndrome.”  This condition basically means that there is a breakdown in the gut barrier system which can lead to things like food sensitivities and a general inability to block the nasty stuff that can get into our bodies and cause us harm.  Once we lose this barrier system, all sorts of things can work to inflame our system.  And it is inflammation that will get us in the end.  When this happens, the world we live in rapidly becomes a very dangerous place.

So in closing, don’t be fooled by the commercials on Statin (cholesterol) medications. And don’t even be fooled by your medical doctor.  Ask for an H. Pylori screen at the very least if you have a history of heart disease or digestive conditions.  Demand a thorough  look at ALL your risk factors.  This often overlooked infection can have dramatic impacts on your health in general and more times than not comes with no symptoms to warn you of the damage it is producing.  I test my patients for this infection and more as part of a basic wellness type screen.  And remember, this is only one part of heart health.  Let go of the cholesterol model of heart disease. It is working to cloud your vision of the potentially more important players to the problem.  Start looking into the other equally valid and oftentimes more significant players in this part of your health.  And if your doctor won’t do it for you, I am always happy to help!