Gut microorganisms may cause heart disease

April 8, 2011

Scientists have discovered a new digestive pathway that links a common dietary lipid and intestinal microflora with an increased risk of heart disease, according to a study published in Nature.

The researchers found that how the microorganisms that live in the digestive tracts metabolize the lipid phosphatidyl choline can lead to heart disease-forming products.

“When two people both eat a similar diet but one gets heart disease and the other doesn’t, we currently think the cardiac disease develops because of their genetic differences; but our studies show that is only a part of the equation,” said Stanley Hazen, Staff in Lerner Research Institute’s Dept. of Cell Biology and the Heart and Vascular Institute’s Dept. of Cardiovascular Medicine and Section Head of Preventive Cardiology & Rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic, and Senior Author of the study. “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.”

When phosphatidyl choline’s metabolite choline is consumed in excess, it promoted atherosclerotic heart disease, he added.

“Knowing that gut flora generates a pro-atherosclerotic metabolite from a common dietary lipid opens up new opportunities for improved diagnostics, prevention and treatment of heart disease,” said Hazen. “These studies suggest we can intelligently design a heart healthy yogurt or other form of probiotic for preventing heart disease in the future. It also appears there is a need for considering the risk versus benefits of some commonly used supplements.”

Nature abstract

Press release

Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute