by Ted Spiker
Gamblers, weathermen, and Dionne Warwick aren’t the only people who try to make a living predicting the future. Doctors do, too. Just as a gambler might gather stats like Sammy Sosa’s slugging percentage on Thursday games at home when the wind is less than 15 mph, a doctor gathers vital information to try to determine the odds on your health.
For years, physicians focused on basic measures, such as blood pressure, weight, and cholesterol. But recently, more and more studies have shown that there’s a new MVP (most valuable predictor) when it comes to forecasting heart disease. It’s a substance that sounds like a grunge-rock band: C-reactive protein (CRP).
Though it was discovered in 1930, only in the past several years has CRP been shown to be important. Doctors now know that CRP helps measure chronic inflammation and the overall health of your arteries. The higher your CRP level, the more at risk you may be for heart disease—even if your other indicators look normal.
“Half of all heart attacks and strokes in the United States each year occur among people with essentially normal cholesterol levels,” says Paul Ridker, M.D., a professor of medicine at Harvard medical school. “There’s more to heart disease than just lipids. In addition to the problem of cholesterol, there’s the problem of the immune system or the inflammation response.”
A heart attack occurs when plaque ruptures inside your blood vessels. But that rupturing hinges not just on how much plaque you have but also on the degree of inflammation, Dr. Ridker says. Your level of CRP—measured by a simple blood test—helps detect this condition so you can predict whether you’re in danger of cardiovascular disease and stroke. “You can be at quite a high risk of both despite having normal cholesterol,” Dr. Ridker says. “Even people with low cholesterol but high CRP are at high risk.”
Luckily, just as you can with cholesterol and body fat, you can take steps to shrink your CRP. “If you have your CRP measured in your 20s and 30s, you can prevent heart disease and strokes in your 50s and 60s,” Dr. Ridker says. Aside from drugs such as statins, lifestyle changes are the best way to whittle down your CRP and, more important, snuff the flames before they snuff you.
Pop a Multivitamin
A grande cappuccino isn’t the only thing you’d better slug down before you go to work. A study in the American Journal of Medicine showed that people who popped a multivitamin each morning for 6 months decreased their CRP by 0.7 milligrams per liter (mg/l). And a University of California at Berkeley study found that people who took 500 mg of vitamin C saw a 24 percent drop in CRP after just 2 months.
Arch Mainous, Ph.D., a professor of family medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, says CRP levels are connected to the amount of stress caused by free radicals in your body. “Vitamins C and E decrease the oxidative stress,” he says.
Take 500 mg of a vitamin C supplement, or a multivitamin like GNC Men’s Mega Men, which contains one of the highest levels of vitamin C (300 mg) in a multi. Another way to swallow more C: cherries.
In a small study published in the Journal of Nutrition, people who ate two daily servings of cherries lowered their CRP by 16 percent.
Trust Your Greek Friends
Whether for your car, your uncle’s hair, or your arteries, the right kind of oil can make everything run smoothly. A recent study at the University of Athens in Greece found that people who most closely followed a Mediterranean diet—one rich in olive oil—had CRP numbers 20 percent lower than those of their less oily brethren.
“We believe olive oil helps turn off the gene that makes the pro-inflammatory molecules that attach to your arteries,” says Michael Roizen, M.D., a professor of medicine at SUNY Upstate Medical University and author of Real Age: Are You As Young As You Can Be?
Dr. Roizen suggests taking in 25 percent of your daily calories from monounsaturated fats, with an emphasis on olive oil as the source. One way to sneak it in: breakfast. Take a tablespoon of olive oil and mix in the spice of your choice—oregano if you like Italian food, red pepper if you like things spicy—then spread it on your toast, bagel, or English muffin. Or use it instead of butter when you’re cooking eggs.
Floss Like a Fiend
There’s a price to pay for a dirty mouth. One study in the Journal of Periodontology shows that the inflammatory effects of periodontal disease also cause inflammation of your arteries; signs of disease in multiple spots in your mouth can hike CRP by 14 percent.
“The bacteria that cause gum disease, we think, set up an immune reaction that attacks your arteries,” Dr. Roizen says. Floss daily, and make regular dentist appointments so hygienists can remove plaque.
Note: If you can’t stand flossing, at least rinse nightly with Listerine or a store-brand equivalent containing thymol, eucalyptol, menthol, and methyl salicylate. Recent research shows that this swish-and-spit protocol can be just as effective as flossing at fighting gum disease.
Build a Salmon Burger
Yet another bullet point to add to fish oil’s already impressive resume: “Lowers CRP.”
In a new Harvard study, people who consumed the most omega-3 fatty acids (1.6 grams per day) had 29 percent lower CRP readings than those who ate the least. “Omega-3 fatty acids may decrease hydrogen peroxide, which plays an important role in the inflammatory process,” says study author Esther Lopez-Garcia, Ph.D.
Good sources of omega-3s include flaxseed, walnuts, sardines, tuna, and, of course, salmon. And though wild salmon is tops for taste, the canned kind is better at lowering CRP. “Canned salmon is packed in vegetable oils that also contain omega-3s,” says Lopez-Garcia.
Here’s how to get your health on a roll: Drain the liquid from a 6-ounce can of pink salmon and dump the fish into a bowl. Mix well with one Egglands Best egg (fortified with 150 mg omega-3s), 1/4 cup of diced red onion, and a tablespoon of bread crumbs. Form into two patties and dredge in additional bread crumbs. Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. Slip the patties inside whole-wheat buns.
Cut the Fuel Supply
We already know what kind of damage fat can do—both to your body and to subway turnstiles. Losing that fat by cutting calories is an important way to put the squeeze on CRP.
In a Wake Forest University study, those who cut calories and lost weight reduced their CRP by 6 percent over an 18-month period, says study author Barbara Nicklas, Ph.D. She speculates that the body reduces inflammation because it’s not being stoked with excess calories.
Nicklas says that firing up your metabolism with interval training can also help decrease inflammation.
Try this track workout: After warming up, run a quarter of the way around a track (about 100 meters) at close to sprint pace. Rest until you recover, then run 200 meters as fast as you can at a near-sprint pace. Rest, then do 300 meters. Rest, then do 400 meters. Now come back down the ladder—300 meters then rest, 200 then rest, and finally 100 meters.
Eat Fiber, Fiber, and More Fiber!
Leave the Froot Loops for the kids and reach for the All-Bran. In a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, the odds of having high levels of CRP dropped by 40 percent for those people who had the most fiber during the day.
Possible reasons include fiber’s impact on insulin and its ability to bring down cholesterol and blood pressure. “It’s also possible that fiber may have an independent effect through other processes,” says study author Umed Ajani, M.D.
Whatever the reason, consume your recommended 20-plus grams (g) of fiber with the ABC method: Each day, eat an apple (3 g), two slices of whole-grain bread (4 g), and a large bowl of fiber-rich cereal such as All-Bran (13 g).
Go Out with the Guys
Catch Monday Night Football together and the social interaction may help you beat another CRP booster: depression.
According to a Johns Hopkins University study, men who were depressed had a 64 percent chance of having higher levels of CRP, and a new Duke study showed that people with moderate symptoms of depression had two times higher CRP numbers than their light-hearted counterparts. The causes aren’t clear, but depression may boost norepinephrine, a stress hormone that triggers chronic inflammation.
Bonus: Down a beer with the boys and you may lower your CRP even further, according to a study published in the journal Atherosclerosis.