Friday, 13 January 2012

Gut bacteria and heart health?

Happy (belated) New Year! Welcome back to Gutness Gracious Me in 2012. I start this year with a post on something pretty central to the ethos of this blog: gut bacteria.

I should perhaps first apologise to Alex Gazzola (#HealthJourno) who very kindly asked if I would be discussing the new Codex standards for labelling foods and gluten-free and the 20 parts per million threshold introduced. I did say I would have a look at this and I am still looking. I do however think that Alex has done a wonderful job of covering this topic on his own blog (see here) as per the reader response he has received.

Back to task. Despite being only 13 days into the New Year (Friday 13th...mmm?), already the research is coming thick and fast. Over at my Questioning Answers blog, the big news recently has been on the bacteria Sutterella and its detection via various methods in quite a few biopsy samples from children with autism and gastrointestinal (GI) issues. I say big news but in among the very detailed explanation of how that team came to find Sutterella, the main story for me is the suggestion that gut hyperpermeability in some cases of autism might be a route through which the immune system meets gut bacteria in places it really shouldn't and onwards formulates an antibody response. The template for this is Crohn's disease and leads into some interesting suggestions about whether gut bacteria itself might not necessarily be the bad guy but rather what happens when it is allowed to roam.

The other quite interesting news is from this paper by Vy Lam and colleagues* suggesting that different amounts and varieties of gut bacteria might influence the severity of and recovery from heart attacks in rats. I am well used to seeing papers talk about gut bacteria in relation to GI issues and conditions, even conditions like autism where functional and more systemic bowel disorders have been noted in some cases. This is however one of the first times that I have come across gut bacteria potentially so directly influencing the physical health of an organ like the heart.

So what did the researchers do?

  • Three groups of rats were fed three different types of diet: a standard diet, a standard diet plus quite a powerful antimicrobial (vancomycin) and a standard diet plus a probiotic very aptly named GoodBelly
  • The primary probiotic constituent of GoodBelly is Lactobacillus plantarum 299v quite commonly found in fermented foods like sauerkraut and subject to a few claims. One of those claims is that the bacteria might be able to reduce the production of leptin among other things.
  • Both the vancomycin and GoodBelly supplemented groups showed a decrease in circulating leptin levels (38% and 41% respectively) alongside some changes to gut bacteria as one might expect.
  • The vancomycin and GoodBelly supplemented groups also showed evidence of smaller heart attacks and improved recovery after heart attack compared with the standard diet group.

Whilst the authors describe this as a 'proof-of-concept' study, there are potentially many implications from this work not least that our gut bacteria might do far more than call us home and help digest our food. I have previously (jokingly) referred to gut bacteria as being our 'masters'. Assuming the results from this study are pertinent to humans as well as rats, I might well be offering a sacrifice to 'those who must be obeyed' in the near future.

Should we be surprised that the human body is interconnected? No probably not, although it might take a while and a few more bits of evidence of effect before cardio health care professionals start giving probiotics to help treat (prevent?) myocardial infarction (please note I am not giving any medical advice about this). Going back to the Sutterella post and the proposed link between bacterial translocation and gut permeability, I do wonder whether research should also be looking more closely at gut permeability and lots of other conditions just to see if findings such as these might provide a few more clues about health and illness.

*Lam V. et al. Intestinal microbiota determine severity of myocardial infarction in rats. The FASEB Journal. January 2012


  1. Thanks for the mention, Paul. Apology in no way needed. Still feel as if I've put you on the spot! But if you do decide to cover, I'll look forward to reading your thoughts very much!


  2. Completely interesting and provocative Alan, and big thanks for sharing - connected thru Google+ - you would be interested to know that gut bacteria have been demonstrated, some specific species, to encourage the development of BDNF... a natural brain fertilizer. I regret that I don't have the ref for you at the moment but know that with your gut interest, which parallels mine over in psych in general [my favorite question for some time: how many times a day do you go #2?] as it significantly changes response to meds and is a great indicator for immune system issues.