Medically Reviewed by Vincenta Faulkner, RD, CNSC, CCTD
Our immune system fights hard every day to keep us alive, and inflammation plays a key role in this ongoing battle. Our body uses inflammation as a defensive response to germs and infections that threaten our health. Since we expose ourselves to germs constantly, the chances are high that we will experience inflammation many times during our lives.
Usually, inflammation goes away after our infection or wounds heal, but what if it doesn’t? What if the inflammation is on our vital organs or inner body parts, such as our arteries or blood vessels? More and more research is beginning to show a connection between inflammation and atherosclerosis — a leading cause of coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular side effects.
However, arteritis, also known as inflammation of the arteries, is typically thought to be an autoimmune disorder of unknown cause. In contrast, atherosclerosis has many known causes related to unhealthy lifestyle choices. If atherosclerosis connects to inflammation, yet arterial inflammation has no known cause, then what is the overall connection here?
Let’s take a closer look at arteritis below. Here, Zizi discusses arteritis, including its potential cause, types, and its connection to atherosclerosis. Pulling it all together, we’ll discuss how arteritis relates to cholesterol levels and what you can do if you do have arteritis.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is how our body responds to what it perceives to be an injury or harmful illness. This response involves the immune system releasing massive amounts of white blood cells and other immune system chemicals to surround and heal the affected area.
As the white blood cells and other immune system chemicals try to control the damage in the wound, you physically present with symptoms that might include swelling, tenderness, flushed or warm skin, bruising, and fluid. That's why your toe might grow to twice its size when you stub it against a door stop, for example.
The inflammatory process is highly beneficial because it is the reason that your body can heal and recover from your wounds or illnesses. Without inflammation, your toe would remain twice its size, or your fever would stay high. Normally, inflammation goes away after your wound heals or your illness resolves. Inflammation is a great marker for your illness progression because it will indicate how well you heal or if your body is even trying to heal and recover at all.
Unfortunately, not all inflammation is beneficial. Sometimes, inflammation does not go away. We call inflammation that remains short-term and resolves when you heal acute inflammation and inflammation that persists without resolving chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation happens when certain cells in your body produce chemicals that can cause oxidative damage to other cells and tissues within your body, gradually and harmfully wearing them down. Your immune cells, fat cells, or liver cells can produce inflammatory chemicals that induce chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation does not always have visible symptoms: you do not necessarily present with an illness or injury when you acquire chronic inflammation. This type of inflammation is particularly dangerous because it not only persists long-term and is often undiscovered but can affect vital organs in your body, such as your heart muscle.
What Causes Chronic Inflammation?
There is no single known cause for chronic inflammation, and more research needs to be done on its physiology. However, many unhealthy lifestyle factors are associated with chronic inflammation patients, including obesity, stress, inadequate sleep, an unhealthy diet that is heavy in saturated and trans fats and refined sugars, excess alcohol consumption, and very little physical activity.
What Is Arteritis?
Now that we’ve discussed inflammation, let’s apply our definition of inflammation to the arteries.
Arteritis is dangerous because arterial wall inflammation damages your blood vessel walls. Arteritis can ultimately reduce blood flow to your organs and extremities, resulting in various unfortunate health complications that can be severe and sometimes even life-threatening.
There are several different types of arteritis, including Takayasu's arteritis, giant cell arteritis, and polyarteritis nodosa. Each different type affects different arteries with different severity levels.
As such, each type presents with different common symptoms and adverse health effects ranging in severity from dizziness or nausea to vascular damage and loss of vision, heart failure, or kidney failure. In the most severe causes, arteritis patients require rapid treatment to stop potential organ damage onsets.
Let’s take a look at each type of arteritis in a little bit more detail below.
Takayasu's arteritis presents with inflammation in the walls of your aorta and its upper branches. This type of arteritis causes the wells of your aorta to progressively thicken and scar over time, leading to inadequate blood and oxygen supply to the rest of your body.
Takayasu's arteritis is most common in young or middle-aged Asian females. Symptoms include fatigue, joint and muscle pain, fainting, blindness or double vision, and cardiac disease.
Giant Cell Arteritis (GCA)
Giant cell arteritis, or GCA, presents with inflammation in your superficial temporal artery as well as in the other arteries that supply blood to your upper extremities, including your head, eyes, and jaw. GCA generally starts with milder, flu-like symptoms that include headache, fever, body aches, and a loss of appetite, which may lead to weight loss.
As GCA progresses, symptoms increase in severity and can sometimes progress to blindness. GCA is most common for those born female who are over 50 years old and of northern European descent.
Polyarteritis Nodosa (PN)
Polyarteritis nodosa (PN) entails inflammation in the medium and smaller arteries that supply your organs and tissues with blood. This type of arteritis can affect so many different types of blood vessels and thus can present with so many different symptoms.
Symptoms can range in severity from milder headache, fever, weakness, fatigue, and body ache to extremely severe, such as kidney failure or a heart attack. PN is more common in middle-aged male-identifying persons.
What Causes Arteritis?
Healthcare professionals are unsure as to the exact cause or causes of arteritis. Many think this type of inflammation is an autoimmune disorder, though, which means that your immune system chooses to attack your blood vessels of its own accord. Much more clinical research remains to be done on arteritis, its pathophysiology, and prophylaxis measures.
How Does Arteritis Relate to Cholesterol?
Although arteritis is thought to be an autoimmune disorder, cholesterol still plays a role in its progression because cholesterol is closely intertwined with inflammation in general. The leading factors that cause high cholesterol actually cause inflammation first, and cholesterol levels increase later as a secondary response.
If you recall, cholesterol itself is not bad — in fact, cholesterol is vital to your body’s necessary functions and processes and plays a huge role in your tissues’ ability to repair and heal themselves.
As such, cholesterol comes in from your bloodstream and tries to repair the damage it finds along your artery walls, which causes cholesterol to build up and deposit on your artery walls. Sound familiar?
If you’re thinking of atherosclerosis or a leading cause of heart disease, you’re right. As cholesterol builds up along your artery walls to respond to and heal the damaging arteritis spots, the fatty buildups cause your artery walls to narrow and eventually harden. These hardened areas can cause blockages that lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Thus, if you have arteritis, you will likely develop high cholesterol levels because cholesterol will try to help heal your inflamed arteries yet, unfortunately, will just end up causing atherosclerosis.
That’s why factors — which include unhealthy lifestyle choices such as poor diet, lack of exercise, excess alcohol consumption, obesity, and smoking — that are a risk for high cholesterol are actually initially a risk for inflammation and secondarily a risk for high cholesterol.
You can add arteritis that stems from an autoimmune disorder as another risk factor for cholesterol, too, then. If you have autoimmune arteritis, such as PN or GCA, you will likely develop elevated cholesterol levels as your body tries to respond to the inflammation.
How Can I Treat Arteritis?
Fortunately, your doctor can often treat arteritis by suppressing your immune system reaction. Treatment involves taking a drug to suppress the immune response, alongside an antibiotic if you develop secondary infections. At the same time, if you develop high cholesterol levels, you can follow a heart-healthy diet and exercise plan to bring down your levels.
Unfortunately, your doctor might not be able to treat all the effects of arteritis, especially if they are severe such as blindness or a partial organ failure.
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Cutaneous polyarteritis nodosa: A report of 16 cases with clinical and histopathological analysis and a review of the published work - ISHIGURO - 2010 - The Journal of Dermatology | Wiley Online Library