Researchers are crediting the gut microbiota, a community of microorganisms in the body’s digestive tract, with the ability to help prevent such serious conditions as diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and bowel disease. Now, new research points to the possibility that beneficial gut bacteria may help combat cardiovascular disease as well. In fact, when it comes to protecting your heart, the maintenance of healthy gut bacteria could be one of the most underrated and overlooked factors for cardiovascular health.
Probiotic-rich foods are linked to healthier blood pressure and cholesterol
In addition to regulating metabolism, immune response and even mood, “friendly” gut bacteria produce beneficial chemicals in response to the food we eat. According to researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, these chemicals lower blood pressure by activating receptors in the blood vessels. Researchers have also found that increasing the number of beneficial bacteria causes cholesterol levels to decrease, due to the ability of bacteria to turn dietary fiber into the short-chain fatty acids that inhibit cholesterol. In addition, gut bacteria break down bile acids needed for the metabolism of fats – thereby causing a need for the body to create more bile acids. Cholesterol, a constituent of bile, is pulled from the blood, causing levels to drop. Probiotics – which are consumable live bacteria – are found in fermented foods, such as yogurt with live cultures, sauerkraut, cottage cheese and pickles. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are certain fiber-rich foods that contain the precursors bacteria need to make the chemicals they release. Garlic, onions, asparagus and sweet potatoes are particularly rich in prebiotics.
Surprising bonus: Gut bacteria contribute disease-preventing carotenoids
Carotenoids – natural plant pigments with potent antioxidant properties – are found in orange, red and yellow fruits and vegetables, including carrots, pumpkin, cantaloupe and papaya. However, researchers say they can also be produced in the body by gut bacteria. Obtaining carotenoids from dietary sources – as well as supplementation if indicated – is still necessary, of course, but beneficial gut bacteria can help “take up the slack” in cases where diet or supplementation is less than optimal. Recent research has examined the link between healthy gut bacteria, carotenoid status and cardiovascular disease.
In a study of atherosclerosis and stroke patients, researchers found that healthy subjects in the control group had much higher levels of a particular strain of bacteria that produces anti-inflammatory compounds and carotenoids – particularly beta-carotene and lycopene. They also had higher levels of antioxidants in their blood – a factor associated with a reduced risk of heart disease in several studies. In fact, the differences in gut bacteria between healthy people and those with atherosclerosis were so pronounced that the researchers remarked that a microbiota analysis could be used as a technique to predict risk of heart disease.
Warning: Harmful pathogen overgrowth can wreak havoc on the body
Unfortunately, not all of the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract are friendly. Problems arise when the balance between beneficial and harmful bacteria is disturbed, leading to overgrowths of pathogenic bacteria. In a study published in March 2016 in Journals of the American College of Cardiology: Heart Failure, researchers analyzed the gut flora of 60 patients with chronic heart failure. They found that – compared to normal subjects – the CHF patients had “massive” quantities of harmful bacteria and fungi, including such pathogens as shigella, campylobacter, salmonella and Candida. They also had increased intestinal permeability, meaning that pathogenic gut flora could pass from the intestine to the bloodstream – a factor in triggering chronic heart failure. The researchers reported that pathogenic gut bacteria actively interfere with “friendly” bacteria’s production of beneficial metabolites – such as short-chain fatty acids – while also causing inflammation and heightening infection risk.
Fact: Threats to gut bacteria health are widespread
A wide range of both prescribed and over-the-counter medicines – including antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, cholesterol drugs and acid-suppressant therapies – can upset the balance of the gut microbiota, encouraging the growth of pathogens while killing off friendly bacteria. Other factors that adversely affect gut flora include chronic bowel congestion, bowel ischemia (or blocked blood flow), slowed intestinal function, exposure to heavy metals, pesticide and herbicide use and excessive consumption of fats and carbohydrates.
Your gut bacteria perform a host of important functions – some of which we are only learning about now, and eating fermented foods and taking probiotic supplements can help ensure that they will continue to do their job. Keep in mind, if you are suffering with any chronic health condition – be sure to work with a trusted, healthcare provider to help you find the best diet and supplementation routine for your health.
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