February is always American Heart Month (also known as National Heart Month). It's not only where we celebrate Valentine's day and enjoy flowers and chocolates from our loved ones, but a time where we can think more about this critical organ. Not only is Heart Disease the number one killer in the US, but other heart concerns like diabetes, elevated cholesterol, and high blood pressure are all major health concerns in our world.
We all know the old saying that "the way to one's heart is through their stomach," which means that by feeding them delicious food, they'd fall in love. But one of the key ways to support one's heart is also through their stomach – by supporting gut health!
So, what does your heart have to do with your gut, you ask? We often talk about the gut and its relationship to digestion, the immune system, and our brain, but we often forget how important gut health is for our heart. There are several ways gut health impacts heart health, and here are a few examples:
The Gut Microbiome and Atherosclerosis
Overgrowth of certain unhealthy bacteria produces a byproduct called trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). High TMAO levels have been associated with atherosclerosis or plaque buildup in the arteries, and stroke ( Astudillo, Andrea A, et al., 2021 ).
Intestinal Permeability and Inflammation
Increased permeability of the intestinal wall, also known as leaky gut, is a major contributor to inflammation in the body, which has been associated with obesity and insulin resistance. In addition, those with Inflammatory Bowel Disorders who have high intestinal permeability have a higher risk of Coronary Heart Disease ( Forkosh, Esther, et al., 2019 ).
Byproducts of Our Gut Microbes Affect Blood Pressure
Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs) are byproducts of certain beneficial bacteria within the gut and have been found to have a beneficial effect on blood pressure. This means when we don't have enough healthy probiotic bacteria, we experience a lack of SCFA production.
Even with the complexities of the gut, there are a few simple dietary changes you can make to improve your heart through your gut:
Fiber helps feed our probiotic bacteria and also helps bind to excess cholesterol and toxins in the digestive tract. Fiber also acts in the digestive system to bind to excess cholesterol to be excreted via the stool. ( Soliman, Ghada A, 2019 ). Incorporate more fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
The use of probiotic foods, like fermented dairy (like kefir), sauerkraut, and kimchi, help to provide beneficial bacteria that help restore a healthy balance in the gut. In addition to eating these foods, taking a probiotic supplement can also further the benefits by improving the balance of cardio-protective strains of bacteria.
Bright Colored Fruits & Vegetables
Brightly colored fruits and veggies provide a range of antioxidants, including anthocyanins – found in blue, purple, and dark reds. Anthocyanins play a protective role against atherosclerosis by interacting with gut bacteria ( Novakovic, Marko, et al., 2020 ). Incorporate more berries, pomegranate, cherries, and red cabbage.
In the end, taking care of our heart takes a full-body approach, and nutrition is one of the keys! By incorporating the tools above, you'll find better digestion and better heart health help improve your brain, your mood, and your overall health, too!
About the Author
Dr. Brooke Scheller, DCN, CNS, is a Doctor of Clinical Nutrition, Board Certified Nutrition Specialist, and expert in functional nutrition and personalized health. She specializes in gut health, mental health, and nutrition for reducing alcohol intake. Learn more at brookescheller.com or follow Dr. Brooke on Instagram.