The Way to Your Heart is Through Your...Gut

Maybe you think that sneaking just one greasy burger and fries is no big deal to your health. More and more, however, the connection between our food choices and immediate consequences on our overall health and heart status is being demonstrated. Years ago, scientific studies showed that even one McDonald's Sausage McMuffin can lessen the function of arteries within an hour and have a negative impact lasting up to seven hours. In the last year we have new and profound insights to further connections.

Probiotics are one way to assess whether the health of the GI tract can impact the health of the cardiovascular system. Research has demonstrated the ability of probiotics to lower cholesterol, blood pressure, inflammation in diabetics, and mediate weight gain. In one study, probiotics given to patients with congestive heart failure, a very serious disorder, resulted in a major increase in heartfunction. 

Now there is even more fascinating data linking what you eat to the health of your heart. In 2011 researchers at the Cleveland Clinic searched for new causes of heart disease. The researchers focused on tri-methyl amine oxide (TMAO). Studies in animal and human models found that TMAO was produced from our diet, mainly choline from eggs and L-carnitine from meats. TMAO increases the accumulation of cholesterol in the wall of arteries to begin plaque buildup.

Studies showed that the higher the blood level of TMAO, the more advanced and severe the heart disease. Subsequent studies have shown that feeding l-carnitine, in the form of a steak, or choline, in the form of eggs, to volunteers produces major rises in TMAO. It is now understood that the bacteria of typical Americans first produce TMA, and then our liver converts it to the dangerous TMAO. 

What about TMAO in people who eat only plan- based foods (vegans)? Researchers paid vegans to eat eggs or a steak for scientific purposes and measured TMAO blood levels. What happened? Nothing. Vegans have different bacteria in the GI tract and do not convert these foods to TMAO.

It is now known that TMAO is a marker of kidney damage, causing scar tissue in kidneys and directly injuring kidneys. Furthermore, elevated TMAO levels in congestive heart failure are now established, and TMAO may scar the heart too. Avoiding eggs, dairy, and meat may be wise in these conditions. It is hopeful that certain probiotics may help prevent the rise in TMAO. A new agent, DMB, found in balsamic vinegar and some wines, has just been shown in an animal model to block the production of TMA from bacteria in the gut so you can’t make TMAO.

There is a brand new blood test for TMAO that is available in selected prevention clinics (including mine). While we have much to learn about TMAO and your health, the way to a man’s heart, and a woman’s too, is truly through the stomach.  Be sure the decisions you make about your diet are gut and heart friendly choices.

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