Despite the fact that I’m an integrative cardiologist, I often look first at a patient’s gut to shed light on the underlying cause of heart disease. What could the gut possibly have to do with the heart? It’s all about inflammation.
If aliens were to take a human body and analyze it cell by cell, they’d come to the conclusion that we’re mostly a mass of bacteria with just a few human cells mixed in. Each of us has more than 100 trillion bacteria inside of us — 10 times the number of human cells!
This mix of bacteria is called our “microbiome,” which begins to develop at birth and is affected by many surprising factors, including whether a birth is vaginal or via C-section, and when we first eat solid food as infants. And as adults, our lifestyle choices — what we eat, whether we’re obese, how much we exercise, how much stress we’re under, if we smoke or overuse antibiotics and other medications — also significantly affect the quality and diversity of our microbiome, for good and for bad.
This is important because in recent years we’ve become more and more aware that an imbalance of the bacteria in our microbiome, especially in the gut, can cause chronic low-level inflammation — and, more important, that this inflammation may be the cause of diseases, such as dementia, diabetes, cancer, and, yes, heart disease.
The most important part of our gut is its inner lining, a layer of cells called the epithelium, which keeps all the outside substances we ingest into our stomachs — then process through our intestines — from leaking out into the rest of the body. And because the epithelial cells feed on short-chain fatty acids that are produced by the gut bacteria around it, how healthy and diverse the microbiome is directly affects how healthy the epithelium is.
This means that any unhealthy changes in the microbiome can cause a breakdown of this protective layer — which in turn causes the gut to “leak.” It’s this “leaky gut” that causes inflammation both there in the gut and in other parts of the body. And because the surface area of the epithelium is huge — larger than a tennis court if laid out flat — this is a lot of inflammation that can travel to vital organs like the heart and arteries, causing serious illnesses like heart attacks, strokes, and even death.
Fortunately, in many instances, simple lifestyle changes can have dramatic beneficial effects on the bacteria inside us. Here, the best ways to foster a healthy gut: