By Dr. Mercola
In addition to playing a key role in your immune function, your gut health has been shown to be a powerful variable of epigenetics, a cutting-edge field of medicine highlighting the role your lifestyle plays with respect to genetic expression.
One 2016 study1 concluded that metabolites produced by your gut bacteria chemically communicate with cells throughout your body, and in this way actually dictate the expression of your genes. In other words, your gut bacteria largely determine which genes are switched on and which are switched off.
Overall, mounting scientific evidence suggest a large component of “healthy nutrition” centers on nourishing the health-promoting bacteria in your gut. Doing so facilitates just about everything from managing your weight and optimizing your mental health to lowering your chances of developing chronic disease such as diabetes,2,3,4 heart disease and even cancer.5,6,7 With regard to heart disease, recent research shows beneficial gut bacteria, known as probiotics, help lower blood pressure and can reduce your risk of both heart attacks and stroke.
Probiotics May Lower Heart Disease Risk
Most recently, research8 published in the journal Atherosclerosis found that patients with inexplicably high amounts of arterial plaque, based on their age and risk factors for atherosclerosis, had higher levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), p-cresyl sulfate, p-cresyl glucuronide and phenylacetylglutamine — metabolites produced by certain gut microbes — whereas those with unexpectedly low amounts of plaque, despite having traditional risk factors, had lower levels of these metabolic products.
According to the authors, these differences could not be explained by renal function or poor diet. There was, however, a difference in gut microbiome between the groups. Their findings strongly support the idea that your gut microbiome plays an important role in your risk for atherosclerosis, and that by repopulating your gut flora with beneficial bacteria might offer significant protection against heart attacks, stroke and death.
High TMAO Is a Potent Predictor of Early Death
Previous studies have shown high levels of TMAO are associated with an increased risk of heart attacks and stroke, as well as premature death among those with stable coronary artery disease. In one analysis,9 high blood levels of TMAO increased the risk of dying from any cause fourfold in the next five years. As explained by the Cleveland Heart Lab:10
“When people ingest certain nutrients, such as choline (abundant in red meat, egg yolks and dairy products) and L-carnitine (found in red meat as well as some energy drinks and supplements), the gut bacteria that break it down produce a compound called trimethylamine (TMA).
The liver then converts TMA into … TMAO. The trouble with TMAO is that data show high levels contribute to a heightened risk for clot-related events … even after researchers take into account the presence of conventional risk factors and markers of inflammation that might skew the results …
In general, consuming a diverse diet rich in plant foods and fiber may be helpful. When Cleveland Clinic researchers fed mice a diet rich in TMAO producing nutrients, they identified a compound called DMB capable of minimizing TMAO produced from their gut microbiota.
In fact, when DMB was added to their drinking water, they found TMAO levels and the formation of arterial plaques both declined. DMB may be found naturally in many Mediterranean diet foods, including red wine and extra-virgin olive oil. Such an eating pattern may turn out to be key to cultivating a healthy human gut microbiome — one that will fend off myriad illnesses, including heart disease …”
The study authors were quick to note that eliminating entire food groups from your diet to minimize TMAO formation would be a bad idea,11 considering these foods also have important health benefits. However, measuring blood levels of TMAO could potentially be a powerful predictive tool for assessing cardiovascular risks, in addition to other measurements such as glucose and triglycerides.
Probiotics Help Normalize Blood Pressure
Other recent findings suggest regularly consuming probiotics can help relieve hypertension (high blood pressure), which is yet another risk factor12 for heart attack and stroke. One previous analysis13 of nine studies that scrutinized associations between probiotics and blood pressure found that people who consume probiotics on a regular basis (in the form of yogurt, kefir or supplements, for example) tended to have lower blood pressure than those who did not consume probiotics.
On average, their systolic blood pressure (the top number in a reading) was 3.6 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) lower and their diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) was 2.4 mm Hg lower. The most significant benefit appeared to be among those whose blood pressure was higher than 130/85, and probiotics that contained a variety of bacteria lowered blood pressure to a greater degree than those containing just one type of bacteria.
Another animal study14 published last year found the probiotic lactobacillus marinus effectively prevents salt-sensitive hypertension by modulating TH17 cells. (Other research has found high salt intake inhibits lactobacillus marinus, thereby contributing to hypertension.) According to the authors:
“In line with these findings, a moderate high-salt challenge in a pilot study in humans reduced intestinal survival of lactobacillus spp., increased TH17 cells and increased blood pressure. Our results connect high salt intake to the gut–immune axis and highlight the gut microbiome as a potential therapeutic target to counteract salt-sensitive conditions.”
Antihypertensive Effects of Kefir Confirmed
Findings presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology conference found similar effects on blood pressure using kefir, specifically. Here, rats were divided into three groups. The first group, consisting of hypertensive rats, received kefir on a regular basis for nine weeks. The second group, which was also hypertensive, did not receive kefir. The third control group had normal blood pressure and were given regular chow.
After nine weeks, blood and stool samples were analyzed to evaluate changes to the animals’ microbiome. Blood pressure was also measured, and neural changes in the hypothalamus, which plays a role in the regulation of blood pressure, were analyzed. Compared to groups two and three, the treatment group that received kefir had:
- Lower blood pressure
- Improved balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut
- Improved intestinal structure with decreased intestinal permeability
- Lower levels of endotoxins (byproducts of bacterial disintegration that contribute to inflammation)
- Lower levels of inflammation in the central nervous system
According to the authors, “Our data suggests that kefir antihypertensive-associated mechanisms involve gut microbiota-brain axis communication during hypertension.” In other words, signals sent from the gut to the brain influence blood pressure, and by improving the gut microbiome, blood pressure was normalized naturally.
Factory Farmed Meat Helps Drug-Resistant Bacteria Thrive in Your Digestive Tract
While it’s generally not recommended to avoid all meat, dairy and egg products for fear of TMAO formation, it’s important to recognize that there’s a vast difference between factory farmed versions of these foods and organic or biodynamically raised ones. Importantly, in addition to being lower in important nutrients, by studying fecal samples, researchers have found that agricultural antibiotics fed to chickens15 and cows have the ability to adversely impact your gut microbiome when these foods are consumed.16
This, I believe, is a major reason for buying organically grown, grass fed meats, eggs and dairy products and avoiding those from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). This finding is part of a much larger project called the American Gut; an ongoing global analysis of gut bacteria in more than 11,300 people to date.
It’s still ongoing, so if you’re interested in finding out more about your microbiome, you can still join in. For more information, see “American Gut — One of the Most Important Health Projects of the 21st Century.” As reported by Medicine Net:17
“Several observations have already been made. For example, those who eat more than 30 types of plant-based foods per week have more diverse microbiomes than those who eat 10 or fewer types of plants. The volunteers who ate more than 30 plants a week also had fewer drug-resistant genes in their gut microbiomes than people who ate 10 or fewer plants. It’s unclear exactly why this is the case.
Researchers speculate that people who eat fewer fruits and vegetables may, in turn, be eating more meat from antibiotic-treated animals or processed foods with antibiotics added as a preservative. This could help antibiotic-resistant bacteria thrive in the digestive tract. Antibiotic use also affects the types of bacteria found in the gut: People who reported taking these medications within the past month had less bacterial diversity in their gut than those who didn’t.”
CAFO Chicken May Be the Worst Offender
CAFO chicken appears to be the worst, in terms of upsetting your gut microbiome with residual antibiotics. Most recently, Chinese researchers report18,19 having isolated colistin-resistant Escherichia coli (E. coli) in randomly selected chickens raised in Chinese CAFO farms. Colistin is an antibiotic of last resort. The E. coli also frequently carried multiple resistance genes.
In fact, it’s the first time both mcr-1 and mcr-3 genes have been found together on a single plasmid (a genetic element capable of transferring genetic material from one bacterium to another, sometimes even between different species), and their coexistence “may pose a huge threat to public health,” Hongning Wang, Ph.D., professor of animal disease prevention and food safety at Sichuan University said.
Mcr-1 alone is bad enough. This gene mutation makes bacteria resistant to our most powerful antibiotics, and its rate of transfer is exceptionally high. Mcr-3 makes the rate of transfer even greater, as it contains “insertion sequences” that encourage their integration into other plasmids, thereby speeding up the spread of resistance genes even more.
The mcr colistin resistance genes were discovered just three years ago,20,21,22 but already five different ones have been identified, plus variants, and have been detected not only in E. coli, but also in klebsiella pneumoniae, enterobacteriaceae and aeromonads. As noted by Wang, “It is time to let the public understand the serious consequences of the abuse of antibiotics. If the last line of antibiotics is breached by bacteria, we will find ourselves in the post-antibiotic era.”
Contaminated Chicken Implicated in Drug-Resistant Urinary Tract Infections
In a 2017 interview, public health journalist Maryn McKenna explained the crux of the problem with routine antibiotic administration in CAFOs:23
“When we give animals antibiotics, those antibiotics, for the most part, are given in their food and water. So, they go into the animal’s guts. They make some of those bacteria [in the gut] resistant … That bacteria contaminates [the animal’s] meat. We eat the meat. And then we develop the foodborne illnesses that … happen to be antibiotic-resistant …
Sometimes those [antibiotic-resistant] bacteria get out of our digestive systems and travel the short distance to our urinary systems, and then it feels just like a regular UTI [urinary tract infection]. So, a woman goes to her doctor and says, ‘I have a urinary tract infection.’ And the doctor will give her one of those standard sets of antibiotics that are prescribed by medicine, and nothing happens. In other words, the antibiotic doesn’t work because the infection is resistant.
Indeed, an estimated 10 percent of the 8 million UTIs occurring in American women each year are thought to be caused by food, predominantly CAFO chicken meat.24 For years now, scientists have warned that infectious disease could potentially spread through the food supply, and when it comes to UTIs, DNA matching overwhelmingly supports this hypothesis. In other words, many UTIs are caused by zoonosis, meaning animal to human disease transfer.25,26,27
As early as 2005 papers were published showing drug-resistant E. coli strains from supermarket meat matched strains found in human E. coli infections,28 including UTIs29 (85 percent of which are caused by E. coli). For all of these reasons, I strongly recommend avoiding antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, and avoid all meats (and other animal products) raised with antibiotics.
Improve Your Gut Flora With Probiotics, Prebiotics and Sporebiotics
To nourish your gut microbiome, thereby protecting yourself against chronic diseases, including heart disease, be sure to eat plenty of traditionally fermented and cultured foods, along with prebiotics. Prebiotics are found primarily in fiber-rich foods, which is perfect because your good gut bacteria thrive on indigestible fiber. Inulin is one type of water-soluble fiber found in asparagus, garlic, leeks and onions that helps nourish your beneficial gut bacteria.
As for probiotic supplementation, spore-based probiotics or sporebiotics, may be particularly advantageous. Sporebiotics are part of a group of derivatives of the microbe called bacillus. This genus has hundreds of subspecies, the most important of which is Bacillus subtilis.
Essentially, sporebiotics consist of the cell wall of bacillus spores, and they are a primary tool to boost your immune tolerance. Because sporebiotics do not contain any live Bacillus strains, only its spores — the protective shell around the DNA and the working mechanism of that DNA — they are unaffected by antibiotics.
Antibiotics indiscriminately kill your gut bacteria, both good and bad, which is why secondary infections and lowered immune function are common side effects of taking antibiotics. As noted earlier, chronic low-dose exposure to antibiotics through your food also takes a toll on your gut microbiome, which can result in chronic ill health and increased risk of drug resistance. Since they’re not destroyed by antibiotics, sporebiotics can more effectively help re-establish your gut microbiome.
In the video above, Dr. Dietrich Klinghardt, founder of the Klinghardt Academy, discusses sporebiotics, which he has used clinically for the treatment of food intolerances, ALS, autism, Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and more.
Whatever approach you take — eliminating sugars, adding prebiotic foods, eating fermented foods, taking probiotics or sporebiotics, or all of the above — I encourage you to begin optimizing your gut. A healthy gut will boost your immunity, help your body resist disease and positively affect your health and well-being.