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Heart Health

Gut reaction: How bacteria in the belly may affect the heart

July 12, 2016

A better understanding of the gut microbiome may herald novel ways to prevent artery-clogging plaque.

gut bacteria
Image: Christos Georghiou/Thinkstock

The trillions of bacteria dwelling deep inside your digestive tract play a key role in your health. Collectively known as the gut microbiota, these microbes not only assist with digestion, but also make certain vitamins, break down toxins, and train your immune system. Over the past decade, scientists have uncovered compelling connections between different types of gut microbes and the development of obesity and diabetes—two factors closely tied to a higher risk of heart disease. Recently, several studies have explored how our gut microbes interact with the food we eat to spur artery-damaging inflammation and narrowing. While these findings are preliminary, experts hope they'll one day lead to personalized diet recommendations or other therapies to lower the risk of heart disease.

Artery damage

Avoiding blockages

The investigators then tested a molecule that blocks the production of TMA, which they gave to mice prone to atherosclerosis, thanks to their genes and a high-fat diet. The molecule, called DMB, occurs naturally in olive oil and red wine. The mice that got DMB in their water had healthier, clearer arteries than those that didn't.

Earlier this year, Chinese researchers described a different but related approach to preventing blood vessel injury in atherosclerosis-prone mice. By giving the mice a specific strain of bacteria called Akkermansia muciniphila, they discovered that they could prevent inflammation—the chronic, persistent immune response that contributes to the buildup of fatty plaque in arteries. The effect was largely due to a protein that was able to "tighten up" the communication between cells in the inner lining of the gut, Dr. Loscalzo explains. As a result, fewer toxins from the diet could pass from the gut into the bloodstream, which in turn dampened inflammation.

Gut check?

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