Though they may seem like very different parts of the body with very different purposes, the gut and the heart actually have a lot in common. Both are focal points for many of the feelings we experience — and whether you listen to your gut or follow your heart, you’ve likely felt the emotional effects of both. But colloquialisms aside, researchers have recently discovered a whole new, purely physical connection between the two, and the implications could be huge.
About 100 trillion organisms call the human body home, and they’re just as much a part of who we are as our own cells. Most of these microbes live in the gut, and many of them are essential to our functioning — so essential are they that when they fall out of balance, disease can occur. Researchers have found the very microbes responsible for irritable bowel disease (IBD) and other inflammatory disorders taking up residence in arterial wall plaques. Even more, the inflammatory responses they can cause may be responsible for those arterial plaques dislodging and causing heart attacks. Let's look at this bizarre connection and see what we can do to improve the health of our microbiome.
Our bodies are complex systems made up of numerous types of cells. But there’s more to us than our cells alone. About 100 trillion microbes call each of us home, and many of them are just as vital to our functioning as any other part of the body. This is the human microbiome.
Most of our microbes live in the gut, aiding in the synthesis of proteins, fatty acids and immune cells in the ultimate test of symbiosis, but they can also be found throughout our various systems. Imbalances in gut microbiota have been linked to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), certain allergic responses and possibly even type 1 diabetes. So, what does all of this have to do with the heart?
A recent study uncovered the presence of some common gut microbes in the arterial wall plaques of acute coronary disease sufferers. The microbes they found to be most prevalent are specific strains of proteobacteria and actinobacteria that are believed to cause inflammatory responses in the body. Researchers think that the presence of these microbes, and the inflammation they cause, may be responsible for the destabilization and rupturing of arterial plaques. These ruptures can result in a heart attack.
Proteobacteria numbers are often increased in the guts of people who suffer from IBD. Escherichia coli and Helicobacter strains are common culprits, both also known for their ability to cause illness in humans. And the actual microbes in the guts of coronary disease patients have some interesting differences as well. Their fecal bacteria appear to have notably higher numbers of bacteroidetes and firmicutes. Imbalances in these two microbes are also commonly found in people who suffer from obesity and related metabolic diseases.
This may mean heart disease, IBD and other illnesses related to microbiome imbalances could be treatable if we can find ways to fix those microbe imbalances.
We can improve our microbiome by improving our diets, according to an NPR report. The good microbes in our bodies need fiber from a variety of vegetables, along with fermented foods, which are a good source of probiotics — or healthy bacteria. We might also give our microbiome a boost by laying off the processed foods, which add little to no microbial diversity to the diet.
The real connection between the gut and the heart might be anything but emotional, but its effects are just as far-reaching. The more we learn about the human microbiome, the more we realize how interconnected we really are with one another and the rest of the world. Future research in this area could hold the key to treating and preventing numerous diseases. It might even be an end to heart attacks as we know them.