Blood and Guts–Microbiota and Metabolic Syndrome

It is so common to find high cholesterol, high blood sugar, obesity and high blood pressure together that doctors have a name for it—Metabolic Syndrome. It is a break down in the metabolism that affects all of our vital systems. It generally ends in a premature death through heart disease, stroke or complications due to diabetes. Metabolic Syndrome is also closely associated with other common diseases like Alzheimer’s, kidney disease, psoriasis, certain arthritic conditions and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

Standard medical care protocols call for medications to control symptoms, but medications have proven to be much less effective than lifestyle changes for increasing health. While doctors routinely advise changes in lifestyle, most changes that they advise are moderate in nature. Most doctors advise exercise, stress reduction and some relatively minor changes in diet such as eating lower fat meats and dairy products along with eating more vegetables. Yet, even these minor changes proved slightly more effective than medication in treating the disease. Imagine the change possible when patients make radical changes in their diet.

That is exactly what Dr. Dean Ornish envisioned when he set out to test the effectiveness of a plant based diet on heart disease. His study group showed that 82% of the patients improved dramatically within a year of intervention. Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn continued his study for over 20 years, with many of his patients, and found that all of his patients were either stabilized or improved drastically on a plant based diet. He said, “Those patients told by expert cardiologists 20 years ago that they had less than a year to live who are alive and well in 2007 are a particularly compelling story.” Under standard medical care, they would have had less than a year to live.

A similar study was used to test a plant based diet on diabetes patients, with the same astounding success. A whole foods plant based diet successfully lowered the risk of metabolic syndrome, and improve risk factors like high cholesterol and high triglyceride levels as well as insulin resistance. It also made weight loss much easier for the patients. Therefore, it should be the standard care protocol for every patient. If your doctor has not recommended it, you may want to take matters into your own hands and show him or her these findings.

Other, so called healthy diets (the DASH diet, the Mediterranean diet), have been shown to mildly reduce symptoms of the disease, but at best the patient may hope to stabilize for a short period of time before their inevitable death. Only a whole foods plant based diet has been shown to eliminate the risk of developing these deadly diseases, while patients who have already developed heart disease and diabetes will see their risk factors reversed using this type of dietary intervention. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn has said, “If the truth be known coronary artery disease is a toothless paper tiger that need never, ever exist and if it does exist it need never, ever progress.”

There are many ways that a whole foods plant based diet helps to heal the circulatory system, one very important way is through the gut. It seems counterintuitive to think that what happens in our gut can have much of an impact on our veins and arteries. It seems even less likely that feeding plenty of fiber to the microorganisms that dwell in our colon could have an impact on heart health, or on the neuropathic damage caused by diabetes. Yet, there is a definite and very strong connection.

Not only has heart disease been linked to dysbiosis, type 2 diabetes has been directly linked to dysbiosis as well. People with insulin resistance have a characteristic unhealthy profile of gut microbiota, with an increased ratio of Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes bacteria. One reason that dysbiosis may lead to diabetes, as well as heart disease may be that an unhealthy microbiome increases chronic inflammation in our bodies. Chronic inflammation has been linked to both heart disease and Type-2 diabetes.

When we eat the Standard American Diet, we starve the beneficial organisms that live in our digestive tract, and allow harmful pathogens to proliferate in our bodies. The disruption of a healthy populations of organisms in our gut is called dysbiosis. A healthy microbiome creates metabolites from the fiber we eat on a plant rich diet. These metabolites feed our colons, and then circulate throughout our bodies to feed every cell. When this beneficial relationship is disrupted, our cells begin to sicken.

A strong link has been shown between dysbiosis, produced by a lack of fiber in the western diet, and disease. One group of scientists had this to say about propionate, one of the crucial metabolites produced by a healthy microbiome, “Propionate production is especially important in human health, promoting satiety, preventing liver lipogenesis [fatty liver disease], lowering cholesterol, and providing anti-carcinogenic [anti-cancer] activities.” Without these vital metabolites disease is inevitable.

While a healthy microbiota will produce healthy metabolites, unhealthy organisms will have the opposite effect. The levels of harmful metabolites (like choline, trimethylamine N-oxide [TMAO], and betaine) have been specifically linked to cardiovascular disease. Harmful toxins produced by decay organisms present in meat and dairy have been linked to disease as well. For example, high circulating levels of lipopolysaccharides a type of endotoxin produced by decay organisms has been linked to diabetes.

Though most doctors will recommend eating meat and dairy in moderation, that is not the answer. As Dr. Michael Greger reminds us, moderate amounts of these foods means that you are causing moderate damage to your microbiome, and consequently moderate amounts of harmful metabolites to be spread throughout your circulatory system. Just as it is not wise to smoke cigarettes in moderation, it is not wise to eat meat or dairy in moderation. Instead of trading red meat for chicken and turkey, it is best to give them all up cold turkey.

Nothing has so strong an influence on producing a healthy gut microbiome as our diet. Do your microbiome a favor—do yourself a favor—switch to a whole foods plant based diet today. It’s the only way to insure a healthy future for yourself and your family.

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