CSU researchers investigate how gut microbiome may both cause and prevent cardiovascular disease

Video and story by Ty Betts

Researchers in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Colorado State University have found a link between the types of microbes found in the gut and common predictors of cardiovascular disease.

These predictors include conditions that are typically seen to occur prior to cases of CVD and include arterial stiffening and endothelial dysfunction. The endothelium is a membrane made up of cells lining the interior of the blood vessel that helps control expansion. Each of these conditions relates to the ability of blood vessels to effectively transport blood throughout the body.

“Normal blood vessels act like a balloon filling with water, able to expand and contract in response to the heart pumping blood, whereas a stiff blood vessel acts more like a lead pipe,” said Scott Wrigley, graduate student and researcher in the Intestinal Health Lab and Integrative Cardiovascular Physiology Lab, led by faculty members Tiffany Weir and Chris Gentile, respectively.

“This increases the amount the heart has to work and can lead to future heart disease,” Wrigley said.

Wrigley and his fellow researchers examined if changes to the microbiome impact these common precursors to CVD. A key finding that came from their study, and published in the American Journal of Physiology, is that by changing the composition of the gut microbiome, the research team was able to reverse the effects of arterial stiffening and endothelial dysfunction in animal models. The study indicates changes to the gut microbiome from a western-style, high-fat, high-sugar diet, contributes to vascular dysfunction.

Scott Wrigley
Scott Wrigley, a graduate student and researcher in the Intestinal Health Lab and Integrative Cardiovascular Physiology Lab, and researchers examined the relationship between the gut microbiome and cardiovascular disease.

In another study, the research team was able to induce arterial stiffening through microbiome transplantation.

“We are basically linking the gut microbiome to these pre-clinical measures of cardiovascular disease that are independent predictors of future outright cardiovascular disease, such as a heart attack,” Wrigley said.

The feeling is mutual

While research is starting to reveal that humans are highly dependent on the health of their gut microbiome, trillions of microbes living inside of us are also benefiting from the partnership.

“Living organisms are vital to our health just as we are to their health,” Wrigley said. “We provide these organisms with food, their fuel, and they provide us with many metabolites that are vital for our optimal functioning and human health.”

The microbiome found in the gut is made up of a countless number of bacteria species with populations in the trillions. With the added challenge that these bacteria are invisible to the naked eye, studying the gut microbiome is no easy task.

A review by the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, offers some of the most common ways researchers in this field study the microbiome. The use of both antibiotics and probiotics on test subjects can be used to understand the health impacts that result from either eliminating or adding bacteria to the gut.

Microbes put to positive use

According to the journal article, diet represents the most important determinant of microbiome health. Fermented foods like yogurt and kombucha, or probiotic supplements, can add to the number and variety of bacteria in our bodies. But one of the reasons Wrigley said current probiotic supplementation hasn’t always been able to show beneficial results is that it offers a general “cocktail” of bacteria, which are not usually targeted toward a specific disease.

By better understanding specific bacteria species, Wrigley said it may be possible to prescribe probiotics more selectively to help prevent or reverse a condition such as CVD.

“The theory being that if we can correlate specific bacterial species with health and or diseased states, we can then prescribe specific probiotics to impact the health and functioning of the organism,” Wrigley said.

The Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.