Did you know that keeping your bowels working well contributes to your heart’s health? It may sound strange, but yes, organs are related—and it’s even bigger than most people realize. The fact is, the intestine does not function independently from the rest of the body. This means: intestinal and cardiac health are inextricably linked.
But here comes the question: so if I have gastrointestinal problems, gastroesophageal reflux, poor digestion, constipation, lazy bowel, among many other issues and inflammatory diseases that affect the bowel, will my heart suffer the consequences?
The answer is possibly yes, especially if it happens frequently. In fact, not just the heart. Researches reveal that the imbalance of intestinal bacteria can damage the body, influencing very different conditions, such as arthritis, obesity and depression.
Several evidences found in surveys carried out over the last few years also indicate that problems in both the heart and intestine share risk factors and often present similar symptoms, such as chest pain. Furthermore, they can occur simultaneously, influencing the accuracy of the diagnosis.
We are composed of an immeasurable amount of bacteria
Much of this correlation between organs comes from the body’s inflammatory response, that is, the way our immune system reacts to an injury or foreign substance. That’s because about 70% of the body’s inflammatory cells are lodged in tissue associated with the intestine. Therefore, intestinal bacteria have an influence not only on the inflammatory process in the intestine, but also on the entire body.
To better understand what we’re talking about, it’s worth delving a little deeper. To give you an idea, the human intestinal microbiota (or intestinal flora, as it was said in the past) is composed of trillions of microorganisms, mainly bacteria, but also fungi and other organisms. It is estimated that the average person has about 38 trillion bacteria in their microbiota, most of them living in the digestive tract — or intestine.
Many are considered beneficial, with different characteristics and functions in the digestion process and in the body’s defense. There are bacteria, however, that can not only disrupt digestive health, but negatively affect this protection. When we have an inflamed gut, the immune system attacks healthy, beneficial cells—such as intestinal tissue and friendly bacteria—as if they pose a threat.
Thus, without harmony, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the intestinal microbiota cannot act in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases — quite the opposite. This imbalance, known as dysbiosis, can occur due to different factors, including the reckless use of antibiotics and inflammatory diseases, in particular those that cause constipation or diarrhea and, thus, reduce the number of protective bacteria.
An inflamed bowel acts against the heart
With an inflamed intestine, substances that would otherwise remain, including chemicals produced by unhealthy intestinal bacteria, can enter the bloodstream and cause an inflammatory reaction wherever they enter.
To move around the body, these pro-inflammatory substances travel through blood vessels and can even lodge in their walls. We can say then that just as they attack the walls of the intestine, they also damage the lining of the arteries — and the risk is independent of traditional risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes and high cholesterol.
The problem is that when inflammation hits the vessels, they lose their elasticity. If the vessel cells do not function well, the stage for the development of plaque and its accumulation in the arteries is set, opening up the possibility for atherosclerosis and further interruption of blood flow.
Therefore, an unbalanced gut microbiota can increase the risk of rupture of these plaques, reduce the artery’s ability to expand and increase the chances of clots. The evolution of the condition leads to heart failure (when the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the needs of your body), in addition to serious cardiovascular events, such as myocardial infarction and stroke (cerebrovascular accident).
Inflammatory Bowel Diseases
Among the possibilities of a compromised intestinal lining, one of the most worrying conditions is generated by the so-called inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). IBDs are a term for two problems that affect the digestive tract: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. The first can occur anywhere between the mouth and anus and the second mainly affects the large intestine and rectum.
Some of the common symptoms among them include abdominal pain, diarrhea, blood loss, fatigue and weight loss. Most people are diagnosed before age 30 years. Genetic, environmental and behavioral factors are among the causes of this type of complication.
These inflammatory diseases are autoimmune and lead to inflammation, which in turn, as we saw above, can damage the lining of blood vessels. Individuals with IBD also have high erythrocyte sedimentation rates, high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (CRP) and homocysteine levels, factors also related to heart disease and complications.
Situations confirmed in some recent studies. A review of 19 studies on the topic, published in 2017 in Journal of the American Heart Association, reveals that high trimethylamine-N-oxide or TMAO (inflammatory marker produced due to the presence of certain unhealthy intestinal bacteria) is associated with a risk above 62% of major cardiovascular events, such as heart attack and stroke.
Another survey, conducted by University Hospital of Cleveland Medical Center (USA), found that people with IBD are 23 percent more likely to have a heart attack than those without the intestinal disorders — and younger people are nine times more at risk. The researchers analyzed the medical records (from 2014 to 2017) of 17.5 million people between 18 and 65 years old.
Other associated factors
There is also evidence that other important heart problems are indirectly influenced by an unbalanced microbiota, such as diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. Some fundamentals, such as insulin resistance, can be aggravated by this unregulated intestinal microbiota.
In the case of hypertension, the microbiota pattern can determine a greater or lesser accumulation of metabolic residues, such as salts and acids, which are responsible for liquid retention and pressure increase.
Measures to improve gut microbiota – and consequently heart health
We know that there is a lot to discover about the connection between the intestine and the heart, but as we have seen, processes related to intestinal bacteria are already known to be linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular events.
Thus, it is necessary to reaffirm the importance of medical monitoring for the heart of those who have inflammatory bowel diseases. With this care, it is possible to analyze cardiovascular alterations in advance and reduce the risk of a serious complication.
It is also important to maintain a combination of precautions, which include modifying the diet, taking supplements (always with medical advice) and adopting measures for a healthy life. A fiber-rich diet helps to improve intestinal transit, helps control glycemic levels and helps control cholesterol, directly impacting the intestine and heart — as well as regular physical activity, avoiding unhealthy habits (such as excessive consumption alcoholic beverages and smoking) and the reduction in the consumption of processed, spicy, fatty or high-sugar foods.
It is worth emphasizing that, although good dietary practices are determinant in the accumulation of fat in blood vessels, the intestinal microbiota is especially essential in the metabolization and elimination of waste.
When unbalanced, even with a balanced diet, it can favor the development of atherosclerosis and the risk of heart attack and stroke. Therefore, recognizing the role of the gut microbiota is extremely important to your heart health.