6 min|Dr. Jam Caleda
Heart Health Starts In Your Gut: Tips for a Thriving Gut MicrobiomeWellness
What is the Gut Microbiome?
Stop reading this for five seconds, tilt your head and look down. The space in between your hips and chest is a universe. There is an estimated 100 trillion organismal bacteria in your gut alone, making up about three pounds of weight. This is our gastrointestinal microbiome. This population is greater than the number of cells we have in our body, which is about 50-70 trillion, making a compelling case that we are more bacteria than we are human.
There is a growing body of medical interest in the field of gastrointestinal microbiology. Our knowledge is evolving to understand that there is an intriguing universe of interactions that shape who we are, how we act, and what we feel. And even more interestingly is that all this takes place in the thirty feet of tubing we have in our midsection.
So what does this have to do with our hearts? Well, everything.
What Cardiologists Might Be Missing
Let’s take for example heart disease; this condition is generally defined as the narrowing that occurs in the blood vessels of our heart which when blocked could lead to a heart attack (or if occurring in the vessels to the brain, a stroke). Since the 1950's our medical communities have determined that factors such as high blood pressure and blood cholesterol, smoking, obesity, physical inactivity, diet, family history, and age determine our risk for heart disease but what underlies all this is inflammation in our bodies, and maybe more specifically uncontrolled inflammation.
What we now know is that the most influencing organ of our immune system is the gut.
Damage to our intestinal tract causes immune cells to become active resulting in inflammation. This process isn’t always a bad thing because we need these active immune cells to fight most diseases, but when there is constant insult, inflammation can runaway from us. It is inflammation that underlies the basis of so many diseases. Almost everything that we do in the medical community combats inflammation, and this includes our approach to heart disease.
Furthermore, the insults that damage the lining of our intestinal tract is due primarily to the things we put, or more appropriately the lack of things we put in our mouths.
How does this happen?
As I had mentioned before we have over 100 trillion bacteria in our intestinal tract. A population of this magnitude has quite an impact on the space that contains it. So when these critters become unhappy so does the human that is renting space to them. From here on I’ll use the analogy of tenants in a building.
There are two basic ways that our microbiomes throw a fit.
The first is when the wrong bacteria overtake the gut. It’s as if the wrong tenants come in and overpower the ones that are supposed to be there. They bully the original lease holders and tear up the building as a result.
The second way is when the normal tenants don’t get the requirements they need. They begin to starve and then realize, well if I don’t get good food I’ll just eat what’s around me. So they become zombies driven insane by starvation and actually eat away anything and everything around them.
Both these ways result in the destruction of the surrounding environment, i.e. our gut lining. This process leads to a condition where the integrity of the intestinal tract is compromised (known as a leaky gut) (1). And now what was once a very tightly regulated border between our internal bodies and the outside environment has become 30 feet of vulnerability to insult.
Things that weren’t supposed to get through now have free range to go in and out of the body, so the immune system shifts to high alert and inflammation is set at overdrive. As physicians we see this manifest as everything from autoimmune disease, chronic physical pain, depression, anxiety, heart disease and more.
So how do we keep our microbiome from becoming zombie bacteria?
The reason microbiomes can become aberrant is more due to a lack of good food rather than eating bad foods. When treating the trillions of critters in our intestinal tract it’s important to give them the right nutrition. Of course, eating high sugary processed foods is never good for the inflammation that is already.
When seeing physicians or nutrition experts, we can get easily overwhelmed by the barrage of information regarding things we cannot eat; so much so that we forget what we can be eating. In my experience, it is more helpful to focus on what good food is and filling our plates with that. As we get more used to eating good food, the space on our plate for bad food becomes smaller and smaller.
Eating fiber is essential for supplying our gut bacteria with the nutrients they need to be healthy, and in turn nutrify, digest, and absorb the rest of our food appropriately. There are two types of fiber that are essential for gut health; insoluble and soluble.
Insoluble fiber is the material that we cannot digest and helps the waste in our guts move along.
Soluble fiber is the food that feeds our bacteria. It also reduces the amount of fat and cholesterol absorbed in our bodies.
Both of these are needed to ensure the wellness of our commensal compadres. Canadians consume and average of 14 grams of total fiber daily, whereas a healthy dose consists of 21-38 grams; ¾ coming from insoluble and ¼ coming from soluble.
Here is a list of fiber-smart foods (2,3,4):
|Soluble Fiber (g)
|Cooked oat bran
|Cooked Black Beans
|Cooked Kidney beans
|Insoluble Fiber (g)
|Cooked pinto beans
|Apple with skin
|Pear with skin
|1 00 g
Being mindful that having a primarily a plant based diet, with complex carbohydrates as well as drinking enough water is a great way to help the tenants in your body, and in turn your heart. The next time you get a gut instinct, it can very well be your microbes speaking to you. Happy belly, happy life.