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How COVID and Other Infections Harm Your Heart

Doctors attribute heart disease to LDL cholesterol. What if infections also harm your heart? COVID and other microbes may also cause CAD.

Ask most cardiologists what causes heart disease, and the chances are very good that you will be told that it’s bad lipid levels. You know, things like total cholesterol (TC), LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. The solution? Statins and/or other drugs to lower blood lipid levels! But what if infections harm your heart? Studies suggest that a variety of infections can increase the risk for cardiovascular disease. The latest study shows that COVID-19 could raise the the chances of cardiovascular complications in the future.

COVID Infects Coronary Arteries:

Most people associate long COVID with shortness of breath, brain fog, intense fatigue, dizziness on standing and rapid heart rate. There is also a recognition that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can cause blood clots and harm small blood vessels in various parts of the body.

A study published in Nature Cardiovascular Medicine (Sept. 28, 2023) tells a new story.  It is titled:

SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers pro-atherogenic inflammatory responses in human coronary vessels

In other words, the virus that causes COVID and damages the lungs can also invade coronary arteries. That can lead to inflammation and accelerate the development of arterial plaque.

The authors of this research state in their introduction:

“AMI [acute myocardial infarction aka heart attack] and stroke can be triggered by several acute respiratory viral infections, including influenza virus. However, patients with COVID-19 are >7-fold more likely to have a stroke than patients with influenza, and their risk for both AMI and stroke remains high for up to 1 year after infection.”

Can COVID Infections Harm Your Heart?

Did you appreciate the significance of the quote above? The authors point out that people who caught COVID-19 were at least seven times more likely to experience a stroke than people who caught influenza. And people who catch influenza are more likely to experience a stroke than healthy folks who do not catch the flu.

These researchers found that the virus that causes COVID homes in on foam cells that infiltrate arterial walls.

They state:

“We found evidence of SARS-CoV-2 replication in all analyzed human autopsy coronaries…Our data conclusively demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 is capable of infecting and replicating in macrophages within the coronary vasculature of patients with COVID-19.”

The patients in the study already had cardiovascular disease, so these results should not be generalized to young, healthy people. Nevertheless, COVID-19 appears to increase the risk for cardiovascular complications.

What Other Infections Harm Your Heart?

Cardiologists are quite familiar with a condition called endocarditis. It means inflammation of the membrane that lines the internal surface of the heart. This is a life-threatening condition because it can damage heart valves.

There are a variety of pathogens than can cause endocarditis. Most are bacterial: strep, staph and enterococci. There are several other nasty bacteria that can also invade the heart, but they are in the minority. Fungal endocarditis is quite rare, but it is especially dangerous. Candida and Aspergillus can also invade the internal heart lining, especially in people with compromised immune systems.

No physician will argue about infections that cause endocarditis. It is a recognized medical crisis. More controversial, however, is the idea that infections harm your heart by targeting coronary arteries. Remember, we started this article by noting that heart disease is attributed to cholesterol and other nasty lipids circulating in the blood stream. What if infections also promote atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease?

Evidence that Microbial Infections Harm Your Heart:

Dutch researchers wrote an article titled “Infection and Atherosclerosis: An Alternative View on an Outdated Hypothesis” (Pharmacological Reports, Jan.-Feb, 2008). The authors point out that by the end of the 19th century there were indications that infections might lead to clogged coronary arteries. By the 20th century there was evidence that avian herpes virus contributed to atherosclerotic plaques in chickens.

They go on to note:

“Since then, several pathogens have been related to the development of cardiovascular diseases, such as Helicobacter pylori, the periodontal pathogen Porphyromonas gingivalis, hepatitis A virus, influenza virus and various Herpesviridae [herpes viruses]. As a prominent member of the latter, cytomegalovirus (CMV) has frequently been associated with cardiovascular diseases.”

Another pathogen linked to atherosclerosis is Chlamydia pneumoniae (Cpn). The same germ has been associated with hard-to-treat asthma. We (The People’s Pharmacy Press) even published a book called “A Cure for Asthma: What Your Doctor Isn’t Telling You—And Why” by David L. Hahn, MD, MS). Should you be interested in learning more about how this bacteria could contribute to challenging asthma cases, here is a link.

The Bandwagon Effect Dismisses the Idea that Infections Harm Your Heart:

Although cardiologists accept the idea that infections can cause endocarditis, they have not embraced the idea that infections can contribute to atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease (CAD). Let’s face it, they are all in on the lipid theory of CAD. Alternative hypotheses are not very welcome. And funding agencies are not likely to consider something considered so radical.

But an article in ARYA Atherosclerosis (Jan. 2016) offers this overview of “Infectious and Coronary Artery Disease”:

“Based on the studies in databases and our literature review, it is so clear that some microbes and infectious agents can be involved in the process of atherosclerosis…We think that the infectious agents can be involved in both direct and indirect mechanisms of inflammation effect on the process of atherosclerosis…We believe that infection should be considered as an important risk factor for atherosclerosis. Therefore, controlling each type of infections especially among people with a traditional risk factor for atherosclerosis should be taken into account for reducing the risk of CAD and atherosclerosis.”

Final Words:

In considering possible preventive strategies, we discovered an article in the American Journal of Medicine, May, 2023. The authors performed a meta-analysis of randomized influenza vaccine trials.

They reported that:

“Influenza vaccine is a cheap and effective intervention to reduce the risk for all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, major acute cardiovascular events, and acute coronary syndrome among coronary artery disease patients, especially in those with acute coronary syndrome.”

They attribute the success of the flu shots to reduced inflammation. When someone catches influenza, there is inflammation throughout the body. That includes the heart. If there is increased inflammation within the coronary arteries, that could lead to plaque rupture and a heart attack.

There is also the possibility that influenza could make atherosclerosis worse. Remember, the article we cited above in Pharmacological Reports from 2008 listed influenza viruses as a contributing factor in cardiovascular diseases.

Do not expect cardiologists to consider the idea that infections harm your heart anytime soon. Without a paradigm shift, funding agencies like the National Institutes of Health are not likely to invest in such research.

Moreover, drug companies are not particularly interested in vaccines against infections that might contribute to heart disease. The one and done approach does not bring in big profits. It is far more profitable to sell medications that must be taken daily for the rest of a person’s life.

Sorry to be so cynical…but we have been observing the pharmaceutical industry for 50+ years. Over that time, we have seen profits trump patients’ health almost every time.

We welcome your thoughts in the comment section below.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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  • Eberhardt, N., et al, "SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers pro-atherogenic inflammatory responses in human coronary vessels," Nature Cardiovascular Research, Sept. 28, 2023, https://doi.org/10.1038/s44161-023-00336-5
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