Your Gut and Heart Health Connection

Your Gut and Heart Health Connection

What does your gut have to have to do with your heart health and other chronic diseases? A lot.

In the past few years, scientists have been investigating the microbiome, the complex ecosystem of microorganisms that inhabit our intestinal tracks and colon and influence our health and disease.

Microbes exist throughout the digestive system starting in the mouth; however, most microbes or bacteria live in our large intestine. The large intestine can hold as much as 4 pounds of approximately 100 trillion bacteria cells at a time, with up to 500 different types of microbe species. Together, they form the intestinal flora known as gut flora or microbiota. Our relationship with our intestinal microbes is symbiotic; they depend on us to thrive as much as we rely on them for optimal health.

A balanced microbiome
We start producing gut bacteria the moment we are born, and there is new evidence suggesting that this process may even begin in utero. Our friendly gut microbes support digestion and the synthesis of several important nutrients such as biotin, vitamin B12, folic acid, thiamine and vitamin K. They also protect us from harmful bacteria and pathogens and help our immune system and overall health.

But when our gut flora are disrupted, our immune system is affected, leading to immune disorders, obesity, and heart disease. Research suggests that a plant-based diet balances the composition of our gut flora which in turn promotes your health and prevents diseases including heart disease, diabetes and kidney disease. Foods that are rich in fiber and are fermentable, which means non-digestible or undigested carbohydrates, will help balance gut flora and reduce risk factors such as elevated cholesterol and obesity. On the other hand, additional research indicates that a diet high in animal fats and protein, along with high stress, can affect the gut flora and limit the diversity and balance, impacting health.

The problem with meat
It turns out that certain compounds in animal foods, such as meat and eggs, may have a detrimental effect on heart health when metabolized by gut bacteria. Meat, egg yolks and high-fat dairy contain certain compounds that can be broken down in the gut and then absorbed into the bloodstream, impacting cholesterol and thus increasing the risk for heart disease and stroke.

How a plant-based diet affects get bacteria
It turns out that a plant-based diet helps to contribute to more protective good bacteria. Researchers looked at the impact of a vegan diet on gut bacteria and showed that the gut profile of vegans has a reduced number of disease-causing organisms, compared with omnivores and even vegetarians. The research is revealing new insights for the prevention and treatment of heart disease. Although more research is needed to better understand the potential link between gut microbiota and heart disease risk reduction, it’s becoming clear that consuming a diet rich in plant foods, dietary fiber and fermentable substrate is a useful strategy for improving systemic health and possibly by altering gut microbiota.

Prebiotics and a healthy gut
A large number of studies have shown that eating certain foods that contain prebiotics can result in changes in the gut microbiota (flora) by producing a prebiotic effect. This refers to the stimulation of growth and activity of good microbiota in our inner ecosystem. The promising effects on health are especially recognized by the increase in bifidobacteria. Recent data shows an association of increased bifidobacteria on cancer growth, weight management, metabolic syndrome and enhanced calcium absorption.

Prebiotic foods that create healthy gut flora include tempeh, miso, natto, plain yogurt, cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli) and beans.

We are only at the beginning of discovering the impact the gut flora has on our health. Continued research will reveal more about the vastness of our microbiota. In the meantime, following a plant-based approach continues to show promise for our heart and gut health.

Looking for other ways to live a healthier, happier life? Reverse heart disease and diabetes, lose weight and reduce your cancer risk with these tips from Dean Ornish.

This content was originally published on Ornish Living.

Medically reviewed in December 2018.

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