“It is still a ‘way out there’ idea,” says Dr. Stanley Hazen, but the idea that the makeup of your gut flora has a profound direct effect on your risk for heart attack won the Cleveland Clinic a spot on the American Heart Association’s list of 2013’s Top 10 Advances in Heart Disease and Stroke Science.
Gut flora can make a big difference in your health
And Hazen’s research is just one example of the investigations into gut flora being conducted by scientists and medical researchers around the globe. The implications are mind-boggling. They hold promise for breakthroughs in just about every one of the major diseases that plague us: heart disease, cancer, obesity, depression, diabetes, GERD, leaky gut syndrome … and more.
The Cleveland Clinic study was published in the April 2013 edition of the peer-reviewed journal, Nature Medicine. The focus was on a compound found primarily in red meat: carnitine.
Carnitine, TMAO, and Heart Attack
Earlier studies showed that carnitine increases levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) and TMAO serves to encourage a buildup of plaque in arteries … and that can lead to stroke or heart attack. Earlier research by the team indicated that levels of TMAO are an effective predictor of heart attack risk(1) – more so than monitoring cholesterol numbers.
What does this have to do with gut flora?
The Cleveland study was designed to look at why the consumption of red meat can contribute to heart disease – even in those who take statin drugs and seemingly have their cholesterol levels under control. From previous studies, they suspected the fatty component of red meat, and the resultant cholesterol-building tendencies, were not the real problem – that TMAO was instrumental in the health risk.
A series of projects were designed to assess the diets of vegetarians and meat-eaters to see whether the gut flora components differed. After consuming a serving of steak, blood was drawn from each. As expected, TMAO levels spiked for habitual meat-eaters – but not for the vegetarians or vegans.
There are several important practical take-aways from the work:
- A vegetarian or vegan diet provides a gut flora community that does not lead to buildups of TMAO. If meat-eaters are given a high dose of antibiotics to kill off the gut flora, they do not then exhibit the spike in TMAO after eating red meat or otherwise ingesting carnitine. Scientists found that the makeup of the gut flora is solely responsible for the buildup in TMAO.
- Carnitine can also be found in many energy drinks. Given the apparent relationship between carnitine and heart attack risk, the scientists advise against them – and those beverages are especially popular with younger people. (Look for carnitine or L-carnitine in the list or ingredients.)
- This doesn’t mean a person should not eat red meat at all – but that it may be wise to limit the amount and frequency. The habitual consumption of red meat leads to an overabundance of the type of gut flora that produce TMAO.
How quickly, though, can the types and numbers of gut flora change? According to a Harvard University study, published in the Nature journal, radical changes in what you eat can have a huge impact on the gut flora – even in one day.
“You are what you eat,” says the old maxim. Science is proving that daily. The trillions of microorganisms that inhabit your digestive tract can make a huge difference in your health – and your diet can make a huge difference in their composition. Your gut is central to your health.
(1) http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/806542_4 (membership required)