Have you ever had a “gut feeling” about something? Perhaps you’ve received some upsetting news that was “gut-wrenching.” Sometimes referred to as the “second brain,” the gut constantly communicates with the rest of your body, especially your brain. If the gut and the brain are so connected, it begs the question: what influence does the gut have on the heart? More than you might think.
What is the gut?
Nearly 2,500 years ago, the father of medicine, Hippocrates, said, “All disease begins in the gut.” While that theory still elicits debate, research shows that many chronic illnesses do indeed originate in the gut.
“When I met my wife, Dr. Heather, one of the first comments she made to me about health is that it’s all about the gut and introduced the concept of “leaky gut.” After 10 years of medical training, this mention was the first time anyone ever expressed the importance of gut health.” -Dr. Jack Wolfson
But what is the gut, exactly?
The gut, or gastrointestinal tract, is the tube that processes food through the body. Most people think that digestion begins in the stomach, but it actually starts in the mouth. While teeth do the mechanical work, enzymes released by saliva help with the chemical process of breaking down food.
Food passes down the esophagus to the stomach, where the acid in the abdomen helps the digestive process further. While some nutrients are absorbed through the stomach lining, most work happens in the small intestine.
Once nutrients have been extracted in the small intestine, the remaining food moves to the large intestine. It is here that any remaining water, electrolytes, and nutrients are absorbed before exiting the body.
What is a gut microbiome?
The word bacteria often conjures up negative thoughts. However, bacteria are essential to life. Trillions of bacteria, both “good” and “bad,” live in our guts, sharing space with viruses, parasites, fungi, and other organisms. Collectively, they make up our microbiome.
The microbiome begins developing before birth and is influenced by many factors, including the birthing process, breastmilk vs. formula, environmental exposures, and dietary choices. Seemingly small decisions, such as taking a course of antibiotics, can drastically alter the delicate balance of the gut microbiota.
Why is the gut microbiome important to health?
Scientists are just beginning to understand the complexity of the gut microbiome. However, they know that the higher the diversity of microbiota in the gut, the higher the likelihood of health. After all, a gut filled with healthy bacteria does not leave much room for invaders or pathogens.
If the microbes in our gut fall out of balance, disease may arise. Dysbiosis occurs when the delicate balance of microbes in our gut becomes disturbed. An imbalance in the microbiota contributes to many diseases, both in the gut and beyond.
Though the gut isn’t yet fully understood, scientists agree that the bacteria in the gut communicate with one another and other systems in the body. When the gut is healthy, the rest of the body receives the signal that all is well.
However, when dysbiosis occurs, substances produced in our gut leak out of the intestinal cells and impact other organs and systems. Many diseases are now thought to be influenced by our gut microbiome.
Gut microbiome and the heart
The heart is not isolated from the rest of the body; therefore, an imbalance in the gut microbiota can significantly impact the heart.
When the gut microbiome is out of whack, the intestinal walls become weak or permeable. As a result of the damaged epithelium, toxins that normally exit the body as waste can penetrate the cellular walls and enter the bloodstream. This release of toxins into the blood sparks inflammation as the body tries to compensate. As we know, inflammation leads to an increase in a whole host of cardiac issues.
Aging plays a significant role in the gut biome. A 2019 study conducted at the University of Colorado found that as gut bacteria age, they produce harmful substances that hurt heart health. For the study, scientists gave young and old mice antibiotics to kill off a large amount of their gut microbiota.
After a few weeks, the scientists found that the older mice had three times the amount of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), a metabolite that increases the risk of stroke and heart attacks, than the younger mice. The study suggests that gut bacteria could significantly impact the hardening of the arteries, thus increasing the chance of heart disease.
Other studies have found that the gut microbiome plays an essential role in promoting higher levels of HDL cholesterol that help ward off cardiovascular problems.
Six ways to improve the gut microbiome naturally
Eat a diverse (and organic) diet
A healthy microbiome is dependent on variety. However, just 12 plant species and five animal types make up 75% of the food that we eat today.
To improve your gut health:
- Begin adding more variety to your diet through new vegetables, seeds, nuts, meat, and fish.
- Consider using fresh herbs such as parsley, cilantro, dill, and chives to top your meats and fish.
- Add nuts or seeds to salads.
- Try using chard, arugula, kale, or dandelion greens as a salad base.
Small changes go a long way in adding variety to your microbiome.
Consider eating fermented foods, which are loaded with beneficial bacteria. For example, kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi all deliver a healthy dose of probiotics.
It’s essential to eat only organic food whenever possible. Conventionally raised meat and farmed fish is often treated with antibiotics. When consumed, those antibiotics make their way right to your gut, impacting your microbiome.
Eliminate foods that harm your gut
A diet that is high in processed foods can eliminate beneficial bacteria in the gut. For example, a sugar-heavy diet can deter the production of proteins that encourage the growth of good bacteria in the gut. Sugar can also change the gut microbiome and decrease the strength of the intestinal wall, making the body more susceptible to inflammation and disease.
Foods with artificial sugars are just as dangerous. Studies have linked sugar-free sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose to poor gut health. A 2014 study concluded that artificial sweeteners alter gut bacteria, resulting in insulin resistance.
Keep stress to a minimum
Have you ever experienced a stomach ache as a result of worrying or being upset? It’s not just the food that impacts your gut health. Stress plays a significant role in maintaining homeostasis in your digestive tract.
Numerous studies have established a link between increased stress and altered gut bacteria. One such study examined the effects of stress on the microbiome of 23 college students. High stress associated with final exams decreased Lactobacilli, a “good” gut bacteria.
Avoid antibiotics and drugs (when safe to do so)
There’s no doubt that antibiotics have saved millions of lives. Unfortunately, antibiotics are not particularly selective when deciding which bacteria to target. In addition to ridding the body of the pathogen, antibiotics also kill the beneficial bacteria needed to regain health.
This is why some people develop additional health issues, such as a yeast infection, after taking antibiotics. Studies show that it can take weeks to years for gut flora to return to normal after a course of antibiotics.
It’s not just antibiotics that affect gut flora. One Dutch study demonstrated that nearly 20 commonly used medications impacted the microbiome. Drugs for acid reflux, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and pain all impact the bacteria that live in our guts. The good news is that by improving gut health, the need for these various medications decreases significantly.
Focus on quality sleep
We all know that getting a good night’s rest lowers stress, but did you know that it is also essential for maintaining good gut health?
A 2019 study found that individuals who experienced quality sleep had a more diverse gut microbiome. Interestingly, the inverse is also true. Recent studies demonstrate that a diverse microbiome helps support better sleep!
Increase fiber intake
Numerous studies have pointed to the importance of fiber concerning heart health—individuals who consume high levels of fiber experience a lowered risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
Microbes in the gut, especially the beneficial ones, feed on fiber. Without enough fiber from the diet, those microbes begin to feast on the mucous that lines the intestinal wall. Therefore, eating enough fiber is a crucial way to keep your gut healthy. For example, a recent study found that patients with heart failure who consumed a fiber-rich diet experienced a healthier microbiome and better health overall.
Consuming a balanced diet filled with vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds will ensure that you have enough fiber to keep your gut flora happy and full.
The current healthcare model places organ systems into silos. Cardiologists treat heart concerns, pulmonologists treat lung problems, gastroenterologists treat digestive issues, and the list goes on. However, all of our body systems are intricately connected. Consider a powerful probiotic such as Heart Helpers to help give your gut that extra support.
The Natural Heart Doctor team takes a holistic approach to health, evaluating from the whole-person perspective. More times than not, cardiac issues stem from other concerns in the body, such as the gut. Address the root cause of disease and you have a much better chance of regaining health and living the long, vibrant life you are meant to live.
Eat Well · Live Well · Think Well
Medical Review 2022: Dr. Jack Wolfson D.O, FACC