When leaky gut occurs, these tight junctions get damaged, which means that large proteins, food particles, toxins, and pathogenic organisms can slip through, activate your immune system (because 70% of it patrols your gut lining) and even end up in the bloodstream. Imagine two cells side-by-side with multiple suction cups (i.e. tight junctions) sealing up the space between them. If these suction cups get damaged and loose, the gut barrier loses its integrity. It’s like a brick wall eroding and filling up with holes. As a result, your body will start to launch an immune response to the foreign invaders that slip through, which leads to chronic inflammation, an overactive immune system, and food sensitivities.
Leaky Vessel Syndrome, Explained
Remember when I explained that leaky gut occurs when there’s a breakdown in the integrity of the intestinal barrier? Well, the gut isn’t the only place in the body where barrier integrity is important. In fact, this concept is just as important when it comes to the cardiovascular system, which includes not just the heart but also more than 100,000 miles of blood vessels, including arteries, veins, and capillaries. These many miles of blood vessels have to maintain their integrity and when they don’t, it can lead to inflammation of the vessel wall, plaque build up, and an increased risk for heart attacks.
This breakdown of blood vessel integrity is called “endothelial dysfunction” in medical talk. The endothelium is the single-cell thick layer of tissue that lines the blood vessels, heart, and lymphatic vessels as well as other organs in the body. It’s main job is to regulate the construction of the blood vessels and help keep blood moving where it needs to go. In recent years, scientists have started to understand exactly what happens in the body when the endothelial tissue starts to lose its integrity.
We now know that endothelial dysfunction is a chronic inflammatory process that leads to a loss of antithrombotic factors in the blood (which means a loss of factors that help prevent clotting) and an increase in vasoconstriction and prothrombotic factors (factors that increase your clotting tendency, which increase blood pressure and increase the risk for clots. Studies have also connected endothelial dysfunction to elevated C-reactive protein, obesity, and chronic bodywide inflammation.
But, what’s the root cause of all these leaky vessels, inflammation, and the breakdown of the integrity of the cardiovascular system? The answer is leaky gut.
The Leaky Gut-Leaky Vessel Connection
When you have a leaky gut, toxins and food particles are allowed to leak through the gut into the bloodstream. And when this happens consistently, it can lead to something called endotoxemia, which is the leaking of large molecules containing fat and sugar bound together from gram negative bacteria, called endotoxins, into the circulation. These endotoxins turn on specific inflammatory signals that then circulate throughout the body and lead to the dilation of blood vessels and a decrease in cardiac function. Interestingly, endotoxins are produced more frequently after specific meals, especially those that are high in saturated fat and sugar. You can measure post-meal endotoxemia with a special device that measures endothelial function in real time.
This connection between gut health and heart health is becoming more pronounced every year, with many people falling into a cycle of:
Poor diet —> disrupted gut microbiome >>> leaky gut >>> endotoxemia >>> inflammation >>> endothelial dysfunction >>> plaque formation -> cardiovascular disease —> heart attack
Even more, many of the go-to treatments that conventional medicine doctors prescribe — such as blood pressure medications with diuretics — can actually aggravate the problem by worsening endothelial dysfunction over time. Endothelial dysfunction leads to constriction of vessels (resulting in elevated or high blood pressure), platelet activation (leading to plaque formation inside the artery wall), oxidative damage (more cellular DNA damage), inflammation of the blood vessel walls, and atherosclerosis.
Add another contributing factor to this connection — insulin resistance (where high insulin levels make you put on fat in the belly) — and you’re on the fast-track to weight gain and disease. When our sugar intake is too high, it allows sugar-eating gut bacteria to overgrow, which can lead to gut dysbiosis and leaky gut. We’ve long known that there’s a connection between diabetes and heart disease. What was missing in the conversation is that endotoxemia from leaky gut helps explain how these two major diseases are connected — and the answer is that the gut is the connecting factor.
How to Know Your Vessels Might Be Leaky?
- High or unstable blood pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Obesity (BMI > 30)
- High cholesterol
- Sleepiness after meals
- Mental fog
- Poor circulation
- Cold extremities
How to Reverse Leaky Vessels
6 Ways to Reverse Leaky Vessels
1. Eat Broccoli
It might sound too simple to work, but studies have shown that eating broccoli can help reduce post-meal endotoxemia in the gut and bloodstream. In fact, one study showed that dietary administration of broccoli extract reduced endotoxin levels in the blood and reduced glucose intolerance, obesity, and inflammation in mice on a high-fat diet. As you learned above, if you reduce endotoxemia, then you reduce leaky gut, reduce inflammation, and improve blood vessel (endothelial) function.
2. Reduce Fast Food
Fast food is full of inflammatory oils, animal products, and sugar. Together, a soda, cheeseburger, and french fries are like the perfect storm for leaky gut and post-meal endotoxemia. This is true for diet sodas as well. In fact, one groundbreaking French study showed that those who drink artificially sweetened beverages have a higher risk of heart disease and stroke than those who drank beverages sweetened with real sugar. The reason is artificial sweeteners alter your gut microbiome, leading to the opposite of what they promise — insulin resistance, more fat in the middle, increased desire for carbs, weight gain, and all the health issues that come with that, including endothelial dysfunction, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even stroke.
3. Eat Fiber First
Fiber is like an antidote to sugar, simple carbs, and inflammatory foods. Fiber, especially the type of fiber found in foods like leafy greens, fruit, and nuts and seeds, acts like fuel for your good gut bacteria, which can help prevent dysbiosis and leaky gut. It also slows down the influx of inflammatory sugar from your meals, which can come directly from sugar or the breakdown of carbohydrates. I recommend eating fiber with every meal but especially if you’re eating something high in sugar or saturated fat. By starting that meal with a fresh salad, you can lessen the negative impact of the meal on your body.
One of the best ways to promote healthy vascular function is regular exercise. Studies have shown that exercise improves endothelial dysfunction and is recommended for cardiovascular rehabilitation. But what kind of exercise is best? Studies suggest that high-intensity interval training might give you the most bang for your buck. In one, researchers found that HIIT training produced greater improvements in endothelial function than longer duration moderate-intensity continuous exercise.
5. Boost NO Production
Nitric oxide (also known as NO) is a vasodilator that’s made naturally in the body. It has many jobs but a few important ones are to dilate the blood vessels, inhibit platelet activation to prevent clotting, and act as an antagonist to the effects of substances like TMAO, which we learned last week can contribute to heart disease. NO is a key factor in overall endothelial health and vascular tone. In recent years scientists have discovered that NO is synthesized in the body from an amino acid called l-arginine, so one great way to promote NO (and a healthy cardiovascular system!) is to eat foods rich in l-arginine, such as turkey, chicken, pumpkin seeds, soybeans, spirulina, chickpeas, and lentils (just make sure to soak or ferment your beans and legumes before you eat them!). You can also take l-arginine as a supplement, in which case you’d aim for 1000 – 3000mg daily. You can also boost NO levels naturally by eating beets, arugula, and spinach, which contain natural nitrates the body can convert to nitric oxide (NO). Or take my favorite beet root powder supplement — Neo40 Pro.
6. Implement My Happy Gut® ‘Blueprint’
We’ve spent the better part of this blog post talking about the connection between leaky gut and leaky vessels, so it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that a gut health cleanse is something I often recommend to jump start heart health. By getting your gut microbiome into balance and reversing leaky gut, you are setting the stage for better vascular function, which means lower blood pressure and improved heart health. The Happy Gut® ‘Blueprint’ is a method I’ve developed over years of suffering from my own gut issues to do just that. It involves four step — cleanse, activate, restore, and enhance — which I call Gut C.A.R.E.® If you want to improve your overall well being, you need to start with the cornerstone of your health — the gut. To order the HAPPY GUT® 28-Day Cleanse Kit, click here.
The longer I study the gut, the more convinced I am that it is the foundation of all aspects of human health. I hope that throughout these three blogs for American Heart Health month, I’ve been able to open your mind to the important connection between your heart and gut. Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide and one of the biggest risk factors for a severe case of COVID-19, so it’s more important than ever to care for our hearts by starting with our guts.