Trust your gut. Follow your heart. As it turns out, you can do both at once: The health of your cardiovascular and digestive systems appears to be linked. Why? One hundred trillion bacteria, from at least several hundred species, inhabit your gastrointestinal tract. Many of these so-called microbes are good for you. They help you digest food, metabolize drugs, and protect you from infection by harmful invaders. When your balance of gut bugs goes awry, the damage isn’t limited to tummy troubles. Changes to what’s called your gut microbiome—the group of microbes in your GI tract—may also affect your heart.
The Impact of Imbalance
For years, experts have suspected a connection between gut health and heart health. Recent research adds evidence, finding that changes in certain types of gut bacteria are associated with:
- High blood pressure
- Lower levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol
- Heart disease
- Events like heart attacks and strokes
- Heart failure
Right now, scientists believe one link has to do with the compounds gut bacteria produce when they break down certain foods. Having the wrong balance of bugs may mean more byproducts that raise cholesterol levels and harm blood vessels.
Daily Steps to Maintain Gut Health
Health experts are still studying the details. They hope eventually they’ll be able to tinker with your microbiome to keep your heart ticking along smoothly. In the meantime:
- Approach antibiotics with caution. Medications that treat infections can also kill off healthy bugs. Take them only when needed and follow directions exactly. Never quit early, save them for later, or share with others.
- Practice hand hygiene. Washing your hands regularly with soap and water keeps harmful organisms away. When you don’t have access to water, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
- Fill up on fiber. A diet rich in a wide range of nutritious foods keeps your microbes happy. Fiber from plant foods is especially helpful, and most Americans fall short of the recommended amount. Boost your intake by eating the peels on pears and apples, adding beans to your diet, and swapping refined foods like white rice for whole grains, such as brown rice and oatmeal.
- Ponder probiotics. Foods like yogurt, miso, and sauerkraut contain more healthy microorganisms. There’s some evidence eating them helps restore proper gut balance. However, ask your health care provider before taking probiotic supplements.