The trillions of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms in your digestive system influence your heart in a number of complex ways, from blood sugar to artery walls. Here are four ways your gut health affects your heart health (and four more reasons to take care of your gut).
The bacteria in your gut can increase your risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Obesity and type 2 diabetes are two well-known and well-documented risk factors for heart disease. The state of your gut microbiome could be the root cause of both.
Perhaps the most interesting finding: Even when people ate the exact same foods, their blood sugar could vary greatly, which could be due to the different types of microbes in their guts.
As for obesity, your microbiome contributes in several ways: Your gut microorganisms affect how your body digests your food; inflammation throughout your body; the hormones that make you feel hungry and full; and how fat is stored in your body.
They can also affect your risk for high blood pressure.
Your blood pressure is a delicate and critical balance: If it drops too low, you could lose consciousness; if it spikes too high, you could suffer a stroke. Your body must maintain that balance, and it turns out your gut helps in that endeavor.
High blood pressure has been linked to a lack of bacterial diversity in the gut (more diversity is better) and improvements in gut health coexist with improvements in blood pressure levels.
Your gut microbes affect your blood pressure in a few ways:
- Some gut bacteria release peptides that affect blood pressure as they ferment carbohydrates.
- A byproduct of fermentation, short-chain fatty acids can lower blood pressure.
- Certain gut bacteria can increase the absorption of important nutrients for regulating blood pressure, like calcium.
- Your microbiome communications with your kidneys and blood vessels to influence blood flow.
Gut bacteria influence your cholesterol and blood fat levels.
Cholesterol is a type of fat produced in our liver that’s integral to the structure and function of many bodily goings-on: The construction of cell membranes, absorption of vitamins, production of hormones, and digestion of food.
You’ve probably heard how low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is bad and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is good. That’s because LDL contains more cholesterol and can leave that cholesterol in your tissues, where it may accumulate as plaque on your artery walls. HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, collects cholesterol molecules from your arteries and returns them to your liver.
Basically, LDL litters cholesterol throughout your body and HDL is its cleanup crew. You might be wondering where your gut comes into play.
Well, researchers found that more than 30 microorganisms in your digestive tract could be influencing your cholesterol and triglycerides (fats in your blood). They also determined that the composition of your gut microbiome could explain variations in your HDL cholesterol levels, body weight, and blood fats. On top of that, people with healthy triglyceride levels are more likely to have more microbial diversity in their guts.
Bad gut bacteria can harden your arteries.
As you age, your arteries naturally harden due to a whole range of factors, some common causes being high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, and obesity. Hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, is a major risk factor for heart disease.
In one study, patients with unexplained atherosclerosis exhibited high levels of toxic microbes that come from the gut microbiome. The differences couldn’t be explained by diet or kidney function, which points to a difference in the make-up of the patients’ guts.
In another study, women with stiffer arteries had lower microbial diversity. Just like with high blood pressure and cholesterol, high diversity in the gut is linked to better heart health. Noticing a trend?
And in animals, researchers found a specific type of gut bacteria that protects gut barrier function, thereby reducing the risk for atherosclerosis.
That’s not all.
Perhaps the most intriguing — and alarming — discovery of all is the apparent association between the state of your gut and the state of your heart tissue. It’s possible that beneficial gut bacteria, specifically the kind found in yogurt and other fermented dairy products, produce a protein with a direct positive effect on the heart.
Can I take a probiotic for good heart health?
While the associations between gut health and heart health are astounding and research is promising, simply taking a probiotic supplement isn’t enough to reduce your risk of heart disease or cardiovascular events.
A heart-healthy diet and a quality probiotic supplement, however, may be beneficial. Add in regular exercise, stress management, and healthy body weight maintenance, and you should be well on your way to a healthy heart.