We tend to think about our organs as being separate from each other; the lungs breathe, the heart pumps, the gastrointestinal system digests. But our beautifully designed body is intricately and irreversibly linked. It’s these little known biological connections that offer great insight and therapeutic options for rediscovering wellbeing. Their importance in heart health is crucial.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one US citizen dies from cardiovascular disease every 37 seconds. 805,000 Americans experience a heart attack each year. 18.2 million adults live with coronary heart disease. Living with cardiovascular disease can be exhausting and seeking ways to improve health is important.
The CDC also notes that there are five conditions that raise this risk: Diabetes, excessive alcohol intake, obesity, an unhealthy diet and a lack of exercise. Each is linked to digestive health. We will look at these individually shortly, but first it helps to understand gut basics.
Your gastrointestinal system runs from your mouth to your anus. Its one cell thick lining protects the body from unhealthy products passing through, and decides whether to allow a compound to cross from the inside of the gut and into the body. That’s why most of our immune system lives in the digestive track.
On descent, we find greater numbers of microbiota; tiny bugs consisting of archaea, bacteria, fungi, protists and viruses. When we have a healthy balance, these bugs produce nutrients, protect against foreign invaders, have metabolic functions, digest food, and stop ‘cracks’ appearing in the gut wall. They are crucial for gut function.
Knowing this, let’s take a look at how the five cardiovascular disease risk factors are linked to the gut…
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 Diabetes is an insulin resistant and inflammatory condition. This former means that the hormone, insulin, doesn’t work as well as it should, causing a dangerous short and long term elevation of blood sugar. We need to maintain a steady level of glucose in the blood and in Diabetes this doesn’t happen. The latter means there are raised inflammatory products coursing through the body. Both can potentially lead to heart problems.
When the gut is stressed and its bugs are out of balance, the lining ‘cracks’ (called leaky gut or increased intestine permeability) and allows harmful and inflammatory products into the body where they can trigger the body-wide inflammation and insulin resistance so threatening to the heart.
Excessive alcohol intake
A celebratory glass or an occasional tipple is an enjoyable experience for many Americans. But when controlled consumption switches to excessive intake, the gut takes a battering.
Alcohol changes the make-up of the microbiota, can cause the gut to leak, and leads to increased levels of inflammatory products in the blood. From here, they have access to different tissues and organs, including the heart.
Research indicates that supplementing with probiotic and synbiotic interventions can reverse alcohol-induced microbiota changes and calm intestinal permeability, as well as reducing the inflammation and damage that alcohol causes.
While we often blame an expanding waistline on too little exercise or too much food, the weight gain equation is simply more complex. The study An obesity-associated gut microbiome with increased capacity for energy harvest found that:
“Obese microbiome has an increased capacity to harvest energy from the diet… These results identify the gut microbiota as an additional contributing factor to the pathophysiology of obesity.”
In other words, the make-up of the gut microbiota plays an important role in our weight and an imbalance can contribute to obesity.
You likely know the saying, ‘You are what you eat’ but the bugs in your gut are what you eat, too! Your diet literally nourishes or harms them. The standard American diet, with high amounts of simple sugars, animal fats and refined foods, and a low intake of fiber, alters the gut microbiome for the worst and can trigger a leaky gut. Yet improving the health of the microbiota can happen quickly. Switching from a Western diet to one high in fiber and lower in calories can be a powerful steps. Think fresh fruit and vegetables and ample leafy greens.
Lack of exercise
Most people understand that a lack of regular exercise can contribute to heart disease as the authorities and our health professionals tell us this often. The World Health Organization recommends we aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity every week. Brisk walking, cycling, dancing and gardening are great examples.
Exercise also plays an important role in gut health. A study published in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity noted that, “Exercise can enhance the number of beneficial microbial species, enrich the microflora diversity, and improve the development of commensal [beneficial] bacteria.” We need to move and often.
In health, our cells and gut bugs work synergistically. But lifestyle and health issues can get in the way and lead us down the path of disease. Remember that positive steps like sensible alcohol intake, following a healthy diet, engaging in regular physical activity and supplementing with probiotics are health protective. These simple steps also provide profound benefits for protecting your heart.