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Sharp Health News

The way to the heart is through the gut?

March 3, 2016

Congestive heart failure

Your gut is home to around 100 trillion microorganisms. That's 10 times greater than the number of cells in your body. Although these microscopic bacteria and fungi may live in your intestines, their presence can be felt beyond the gut, affecting other parts of the body, such as your heart.

The good and the bad

There are both good and not-so-good bacteria that live in the intestines. Having more "friendly bacteria" or probiotics — such as the ones found in yogurt — and less harmful bacteria keeps the intestinal environment balanced and healthy.

However, when bad bacteria outnumber the good bacteria, inflammation and leaky gut syndrome — a condition in which the intestinal walls become more permeable — can occur. When this happens, toxins from the gut can leak into the bloodstream and travel to other parts of the body.

"Disease-causing bacteria can produce toxins that can inflame the intestines," says Dr. Nassir Azimi, a cardiologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. "Such inflammation can break down barriers in the intestinal wall, causing toxins to seep into circulating blood. When these toxins enter the bloodstream, they can travel to the heart where they can cause further inflammation, which may lead to heart problems."

A study published in December 2015 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology: Heart Failure, suggests an association between congestive heart failure and leaky gut syndrome. In the study, 60 participants with mild to severe congestive heart failure were compared to 20 healthy participants. Researchers measured the presence of bacteria and fungi in all of the participants' stools, and urine tests were done to measure permeability of their intestines.

Those with congestive heart failure had massive quantities of disease-causing bacteria and candida, a type of fungi. They also had increased intestinal permeability and right atrial pressure, which is an indicator of congested blood vessels.

"The findings suggest that congestive heart failure may play a role in a poorly functioning gastrointestinal system," says Dr. Azimi. "There seems to be a connection between the severity of congestive heart failure and intestinal functioning, however, more studies will need to be done to better understand this link."

Restoring balance

For those diagnosed with congestive heart failure, it may be worthwhile for doctors to continually investigate and monitor microbes in the gut. There are simple, noninvasive ways to do so, and the results could help inform doctors on how to treat heart diseases.

In terms of managing the balance of good and bad microorganisms in the intestines, taking certain nutritional supplements and probiotics are two possible methods. Fecal transplants and colon hydrotherapy — which involves reducing waste in the colon by flushing it with water — are other possible therapies to restore a healthy, balanced intestinal environment.

"Congestive heart failure-related conditions and deaths remain high," says Dr. Azimi. "However, honing in on specific, personalized therapies that can control the microbial balance in the gut may help clinicians improve the overall treatment of patients with chronic heart failure."

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