Certain Gut Bacteria May Lower Your Heart Disease Risk, Scientists Say

Every body is unique with different attributes, with some being more desirable than others. According to a new study, certain lucky people may have bacteria in their guts that can break down cholesterol, effectively reducing their risk of cardiovascular disease. Previous research has already linked diverse gut microbes with a lower chance of heart disease. In other words, people without heart disease have different types of gut microbes compared to people who do, and those organisms are part of the reason why. 

Gut Bacteria Lowers Cholesterol Levels

A recent study published in the scientific journal Cell found that bacteria under the category of Oscillibacter breaks down cholesterol, a major contributor to heart disease. Therefore, people who have more of these bacteria have lower cholesterol levels compared to those with less. 

“Lowering cholesterol in the intestine is an already approved strategy for reducing circulating cholesterol levels,” says Martin Stražar, PhD, one of the lead authors of the study and a computational biologist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University.

Researching Stool Samples

For their research, the scientists studied the gut microbiome, which is made up of the bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi, and other organisms that reside in the digestive tract. In order to do this, they tested stool samples from over 1,400 people who are participating in the Framingham Heart Study that is looking into risk factors for heart disease. That’s when they discovered that those with higher levels of bacteria from the genus Oscillibacter had lower levels of cholesterol. 

“Our research integrates findings from human subjects with experimental validation to ensure we achieve actionable mechanistic insight that will serve as starting points to improve cardiovascular health,” says senior study author Ramnik Xavier, MD, PhD, a professor at Harvard University and director of the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital. 

How the Gut Bacteria Works

The researchers set out to learn how the microbes interact with cholesterol so they cultivated the bacteria from their collection of stool samples. Then they used mass spectrometry to note the byproducts that appear when the organism metabolizes cholesterol. They found that the bacteria breaks down cholesterol into smaller and smaller substances until the body can eliminate it. They also found another type of gut bacteria, Eubacterium coprostanoligenes, that also helps lower cholesterol levels. Still, this study was only a peek into the complex ways the gut microbiome affects a person’s health. 

The Gut Microbiome and Overall Health 

Although scientists believe the gut microbiome has a hand in many health conditions, they are unsure of exactly how. 

“A lot more work will be needed to determine if specific strains of Oscillibacter are beneficial and should be promoted in the gut microbiome,” says Florian Fricke, PhD, a professor and microbiome researcher at the University of Hohenheim in Germany, who did not participate in the study.

Future Cholesterol Treatment?

Changing one’s gut microbiome can be easy with a balanced and nutritious diet. However, many people aren’t able to maintain healthy cholesterol levels through diet and exercise, or even with prescribed medications. Therefore, they have a higher risk of heart attacks, strokes, and related diseases. So scientists are experimenting with the idea of using gut microbes.

“There are many clinical studies trying to do fecal microbiome transfer studies without much understanding of how the microbes interact with each other and the gut,” says Chenhao Li, postdoctoral researcher and one of the study’s co-first authors. “Hopefully stepping back by focusing on one particular bug or gene first, we’ll get a systematic understanding of gut ecology and come up with better therapeutic strategies like targeting one or a few bugs.”

He adds that research still doesn’t know the function of many genes within the gut, which limits these studies. 

“Our work highlights the possibility that additional sterol metabolism pathways may be modified by gut microbes,” Li says. “There are potentially a lot of new discoveries to be made that will bring us closer to a mechanistic understanding of how microbes interact with the host.”


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