Historically speaking, most heart health research has looked at various lifestyle factors (eg. diet, exercise patterns, and sleep) and their associations with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Although researchers have found links, they have also found that these lifestyle factors are not the only things to impact the health of the heart and cardiovascular system.
Interestingly, recent evidence suggests that the state of your gut bacteria may also have an extremely large impact on the health of your entire cardiovascular system.
The good bacteria in your gut can greatly influence the health of the heart through four primary means:
- Lowering blood pressure
- Lowering the levels of cholesterol circulating in the blood
- Reducing the amount of inflammation within the body
- Limiting the amount of trimethylamine (TMA) entering the body
Through these mechanisms, the good bacteria in the gut play an extremely important role in maintaining optimal heart health.
Read Next: 7 Reasons Your Gut Health Is Important
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Healthy Gut Bacteria and Cholesterol
Cholesterol is an important molecule. It plays a role in the production of new cells, insulation of nerves, and the production of hormones. Although your body can make cholesterol, it is also found in animal-based foods many people consume daily.
Unfortunately, if cholesterol is consumed in excess it can accumulate in the blood. Once in the blood, this cholesterol can slowly build up against the walls of your arteries (a process known as ‘atherosclerosis’). As a result, the arteries become narrowed, and blood flow to the heart becomes restricted, significantly reducing the amount of oxygen the heart receives every minute. This can lead to cardiovascular dysfunction, including an increased risk of heart attack and an increased risk of stroke.
Interestingly, healthy gut bacteria produce an enzyme called ‘bile salt hydrolase’. This enzyme interacts with cholesterol molecules found in the digestive system, making cholesterol much more difficult to absorb through the intestinal wall, substantially reducing the amount that physically makes it into the blood. This results in a substantial drop in blood cholesterol levels, and the maintenance of a healthier heart.
Healthy Gut Bacteria and Systemic Inflammation
Inflammation is a natural process occurring in response to stress being placed on the body (physical or emotional). During this process, the body is flushed with fluid and antibodies as a means to clear out foreign matter. Unfortunately, during this inflammatory process, some healthy cells also suffer damage. While this process is essential to recovery in the short term, when left unattended, it can lead to excessive dysfunction. This can cause physical damage to the body’s cells.
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Systemic inflammation describes an inflammatory response that affects the entire body, resulting from the sustained release of pro-inflammatory compounds (which are secreted in response to stress). Prolonged systemic inflammation can lead to the physical damage of the cardiovascular system (with specific emphasis on the arteries and the heart), which can greatly increase your risk of heart disease and cardiovascular complications, while significantly impacting the health of your heart.
Healthy gut bacteria may combat damage caused by systemic inflammation by inhibiting the secretion of inflammatory compounds (known as cytokines). This is the result of the good gut bacteria’s ability to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).
When you consume fiber, gut bacteria ferment it into SCFAs, which you then absorb into your body. These molecules interact with certain receptors in the body (known as G protein-coupled receptors) causing a reduction in the body’s inflammatory processes. This reduction in inflammation reduces damage to the cardiovascular system and leads to improved heart health.
Healthy Gut Bacteria and Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is one of the largest risk factors for heart disease.
High blood pressure stems from the gradual narrowing and stiffening of the arteries and veins. In response to this, the heart has to squeeze much harder to pump blood around the body at a normal rate. This then puts the heart (and the rest of the cardiovascular system) under extreme amounts of stress, resulting in a greatly increased risk of cardiovascular dysfunction.
Fortunately, the same SCFAs discussed above have also been shown to stimulate receptors on the walls of the veins and arteries, causing them to relax and widen. This vastly improves blood flow throughout the body and greatly decreases blood pressure.
Healthy Gut Bacteria and Trimethylamine
Some of the bad gut bacteria, found in an unhealthy gut, feed on the compounds choline and carnitine. Both of these are in many of the foods we eat, including eggs, red meat, and high-fat dairy.
When these bad bacteria break down choline and carnitine, they produce a compound called trimethylamine (or TMA for short) as a byproduct. You absorb TMA into your body, where your liver then converts it to Trimethylamine -N-Oxide (TMAO) in an attempt to detoxify it. Unfortunately, TMAO can interact with the walls of blood vessels, causing them to narrow and increasing their susceptibility to atherosclerosis (as discussed above). Additionally, TMAO can physically damage the walls of arteries, increasing inflammation, further compromising heart health.
In contrast to bad bacteria, good bacteria can lower the levels of TMA and TMAO in the body. They do this by reducing the amount of choline and carnitine available to bad bacteria, reducing the production of TMA. This promotes heart health by inhibiting the negative effects of TMAO on the cardiovascular system.
Take Home Message
Maintaining adequate levels of healthy gut bacteria within the digestive system is essential to promoting heart health. Good gut bacteria improve blood cholesterol levels, reduce systemic inflammation, lower blood pressure, and reduce the production of TMA in the gut, while also reducing the amount of TMAO produced in the liver. By promoting the health of the cardiovascular system through these four primary mechanisms, good bacteria of the gut can greatly support heart health.