It’s hard to imagine, but your gut—your stomach and intestines—are home to trillions of germs. That might sound bad, but the germs in your gut can actually keep you and your heart healthy.
There are both “good” and “bad” germs in the guts of healthy people. The good ones can release helpful substances from foods and control the bad ones, the ones that can make you sick. As long as there are more of the good germs living in your gut, the bad ones should not harm you.
Scientists call this group of tiny germs in your gut the gut microbiome and have found that it affects everything from how much you weigh, to your mood, to how likely you are to catch a cold. The more different types of good germs you have in your gut, the better.
Now it looks like the germs in your gut can affect your heart and blood vessels. In a study of 617 women, researchers in England recently found a link between germs in the gut and stiff arteries. Arteries become stiff when harmful plaque starts to build up in artery walls. Stiff arteries add to the risk for heart disease.
In the study, stiffness in the arteries was higher in women who had fewer different types of good germs. In another study, scientists found that people known to have heart disease with lots of plaque in their arteries had more of specific kinds of bad germs in the gut than the healthy people in the study.
Scientists are just beginning to understand the gut microbiome and its effects on heart health and disease. But you can give good germs the upper hand in your gut and increase the number of different types of good germs that live there. Start with these steps:
- Eat a gut-friendly diet.
Good germs grow well when you eat plant foods and fiber. Bad ones grow when you eat lots of sugar, processed foods, and saturated fat (in red meat and dairy foods).
Besides eating more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, add a few tablespoons of unprocessed bran or psyllium husks to cereals, casseroles, or baked foods, and snack on nuts and seeds.
Good germs also do well with fermented foods like sauerkraut and tempeh (a soy product that can be mixed into stir-fries) and foods that already contain them, such as yogurt with live and active culture and kefir.
- Feed the good germs.
Substances in specific foods, called prebiotics, help to feed the good germs. They are found in onions, garlic, artichokes, green peas, snow peas, asparagus, chickpeas, red kidney beans, lentils, white peaches, persimmon, watermelon, and grapefruit.
- Consider probiotic supplements.
Probiotic supplements may help to improve the gut microbiome and studies show they can be very useful for many conditions. Taking a probiotic called Lactobacillus reuteri helped lower cholesterol in a group of people in one study. Ask your doctor if it is worth a try.
- Avoid certain substances found in supplements and energy drinks.
Some supplements and energy drinks contain phosphatidylcholine, lecithin, choline, or L-carnitine and may increase a substance called TMAO. High levels of TMAO have been linked to heart disease. A simple blood test can be done to see if your TMAO level is high, putting you at greater risk for a heart attack or stroke.
- Lower your stress.
Research in animals shows that stress decreases the number of helpful germs and the number of different types of germs in the gut. Also stress has been shown to increase bad germs. This might be true in peopleas well. Exercise, yoga, and meditation can make you feel calmer and may help your gut microbiome, too.
Over time, being good to the good germs in your gut will become second nature, giving you another tool to keep your heart in good shape!