Plant-based diet may counteract microbes known to increase heart disease risk

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Reducing animal product intake and following a primarily plant-based diet can decrease risk of heart disease by minimizing the adverse effects of a gut microbiome associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

The body's gut microbiota is comprised of a series of microbes that play an important role in metabolism, nutrient absorption, energy levels, and immune response. A metabolite known as trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) is produced when gut bacteria digests nutrients commonly found in animal products, such as red meat. It has been connected to increased heart attack and coronary heart disease (CHD) risk, researchers said.

For the study, authors examined 760 women in the Nurses' Health Study, a prospective cohort study of 121,701 female registered nurses ages 30 to 55 years old. Women were asked to report data on dietary patterns, smoking habit, and physical activity, as well as other demographic data, and had to provide two blood samples taken 10 years apart. The researchers measured plasma concentrations of TMAO from the first collection to the second blood collection.

After adjusting for participants with available plasma TMAO levels at both collections, there were 380 cases of CHD and 380 demographically matched-control participants without CHD chosen by the researchers included in the analysis.

The risk of CHD was calculated by changes in TMAO levels in the body throughout the follow-up period. Assessing TMAO levels relies on diet and nutrient intake. The researchers investigated how diet quality modifies the association between TMAO and CHD. Women who developed CHD had higher concentrations of TMAO levels, higher BMI, family history of heart attack, and did not follow a healthy diet including higher intake of vegetables and lower intake of animal products. Women with the largest increases in TMAO levels across the study had a 67 percent higher risk of CHD.

The study authors found no differences in TMAO levels between the CHD and control participants at the first blood sample collection. TMAO levels examined in the second blood sample collection taken 10 years later were significantly higher the participants with CHD. Every increase in TMAO was associated with a 23 percent increase in CHD risk. This association remained after controlling for demographic, diet and lifestyle factors, confirming the link between higher TMAO levels and CHD risk.

“Diet is one of the most important modifiable risk factors to control TMAO levels in the body,” said Lu Qi, MD, senior author of the study and director of the Tulane University Obesity Research Center, in a statement. “No previous prospective cohort study has addressed whether long-term changes in TMAO are associated with CHD, and whether dietary intakes can modify these associations. Our findings show that decreasing TMAO levels may contribute to reducing the risk of CHD and suggest that gut-microbiomes may be new areas to explore in heart disease prevention.”