If you’re looking to boost your cardiovascular function, go with your gut.
That’s the insight from a recent study in Nature Medicinewhich looked at the connection between gut health and heart disease and found a strong association.
Researchers looked at about 1,200 middle-aged Europeans, including those with no heart issues, and others with issues like type 2 diabetes, obesity, and ischemic heart disease. When comparing the composition of their gut bacteria, researchers found that those with heart problems tended to have significant disturbances in the gut microbiome.
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“These major disturbances in the gut may start many years before the onset of heart disease symptoms and diagnosis,” according to one of the principal investigators, Oluf Pedersen, MD, professor in the department of clinical medicine at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
Leaning toward a plant-based diet can offer considerable advantages for both heart health and gut regulation, he tells Eat This, Not That!.
“The human gut and its bacteria is like a tropical rainforest,” he says. “We need as much diversity as possible, because when that diversity is reduced, our health can be at risk.”
Beneficial bacteria strengthens the immune system and helps improve mood, he adds, in addition to many other functions that range from reduced inflammation to deeper sleep.
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fermented food can all help support the good bacteria in your gut while reducing the less-helpful types of bacteria, in large part because of the amount of fiber in these foods.
For example, a recent study in the journal mSystems found that just two weeks of a high-fiber diet can provide advantages to gut health and lead to better nutrient absorption.
This type of plant-based diet has also been shown in a breadth of research to improve heart function directly. The American Heart Association emphasizes that this is true at any age, citing one study that connected a plant-based diet in young adulthood to lower risk in middle age for heart attack and stroke, and another study with similar findings for postmenopausal women.
A certain level of gut composition tends to be genetic, Pedersen says, but the important takeaway from his research and other studies is that lifestyle makes a huge difference, particularly what you eat.
“You can repair some of the damage to your gut simply by changing your dietary habits, and that improves other organs as well, especially your heart and brain,” he says.