Bacteria in the gut could contribute to heart disease

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Digestive bacteria
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The way food digests could increase the chances of heart disease and stroke

In new findings, researchers say the way microorganisms in the gut interact with fatty food could explain what puts some people at higher risk for stroke, heart disease and death. Cleveland Clinic researchers say lecithin that metabolizes into choline can promote fatty plaque depending on what kind of bacteria live in the gut.

Lecithin is prevalent in animal products, vitamin supplements and commercially baked goods. Stanley Hazen, M.D., Ph.D, senior author of the study explains bacteria in the digestive tract act like a filter and differs from one person to the next. Developing heart disease might depend on what type of microbes are living in the gut, rather than just genes that is the current thinking.

Hazen says, "Actually, differences in gut flora metabolism of the diet from one person to another appear to have a big effect on whether one develops heart disease. Gut flora is a filter for our largest environmental exposure – what we eat."

Digestive bacteria form a heart disease promoting metabolite

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The researchers looked at three metabolites or by products of lecithin in 2000 subjects - the B complex vitamin choline, betaine and another that relies on the production of intestinal bacteria for production and comes from the fatty part of the choline group called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO).

All three of the metabolites are plentiful in fruits, vegetables and fish as well as supplements marketed for a variety of health benefits. In the study, the researchers found measuring levels of TMAO that is converted in the gut to a heart disease promoting byproduct can tell clinicians if someone is at risk for heart disease.

Dr. Hazen added, "Over the past few years we have seen a huge increase in the addition of choline into multi-vitamins - even in those marketed to our children - yet it is this same substance that our study shows the gut flora can convert into something that has a direct, negative impact on heart disease risk by forming an atherosclerosis-causing by-product."

Hazen says the finding means it would be possible to develop heart healthy yogurts or probiotics that can help prevent heart disease. He also notes the study shows taking supplements with lecithin and choline may increase the chances of heart disease.

Nature 472, 57-63 (6 April 2011) doi:10.1038/nature09922 Article
"Gut flora metabolism of phosphatidylcholine promotes cardiovascular disease"
Zeneng Wang, Elizabeth Klipfell, Brian J. Bennett, Robert Koeth, Bruce S. Levison, Brandon DuGar, Ariel E. Feldstein, Earl B. Britt, Xiaoming Fu, Yoon-Mi Chung, et al.

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