PHYSICIANS DISCOVER POTENTIAL BENEFITS OF PROBIOTICS AND HEART HEALTH
BY CATHY BREITENBUCHER
An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but what about a carton of yogurt?
With Americans snapping up probiotic products to aid in digestion — sales of all types of refrigerated yogurt are up 21.3 percent in the last two years, according to the National Yogurt Association — scientists are taking a keen interest in other possible health benefits.
Groundbreaking research at the Medical College of Wisconsin has found a promising connection: lab rats treated with a probiotic supplement had smaller heart attacks and greater recovery.
“We’re only just beginning to understand the potentially beneficial role of probiotics on the heart,” says John Baker, Ph.D., a professor of cardiothoracic surgery at MCW who authored the study.
An estimated 1,000 to 1,500 bacterial species colonize the human intestines, making products that enter the bloodstream some helpful, some harmful. Meanwhile, a protein hormone in the gut called leptin plays an important but little-understood negative role in appetite and metabolism.
The MCW study is the first to link the decrease in leptin levels caused by one bacterium, Lactobacillus plantarum, to the severity of heart attacks. “It may be one of many probiotics that improve cardiovascular health,” says Baker.
Doctors someday may recommend probiotics in the diet to promote heart health, but the ideal “dosage” is unknown at this time, Baker notes. Besides yogurt, probiotics can be found in cheese that is not baked, acidophilus (fermented) milk and sauerkraut, or taken in supplements.
Baker foresees a day when a blood draw or stool sample could identify patients whose balance of intestinal bacteria and leptin puts them at risk.
“It means that for the first time, we may be able to determine a person’s probability of having a heart attack,” says Baker.
Test results also could help doctors manipulate the bacterial levels in the intestines of patients undergoing heart surgery or angioplasty, Baker adds.