The trillions of bacteria and other microbes living in our gut play an important role in overall health, influencing everything from the effectiveness of our immune system to cancer risk to our mental health.
Now, new research highlights the impact of the gut's microbiome on weight and heart health. A study, published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation Research, found that bacteria living in the gut may impact weight, fat and good cholesterol levels, all factors necessary in maintaining a healthy heart.
Researchers from University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands used state-of-the-art deep sequencing technology to study the association between gut microbes and blood lipid levels in 893 people.
They identified 34 different types of bacteria that played a role in the differences in body fat (BMI) and blood lipids, such as triglycerides and the good cholesterol known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Most of these were new discoveries.
The researchers found that gut bacteria contributed to 4.6 percent of the difference in BMI, 6 percent in triglycerides and 4 percent in HDL. The study authors said they were surprised to find that gut microbes had little to do with low-density lipoproteins (LDL) -- the so-called bad cholesterol -- or total cholesterol levels.
Additionally, "the more diverse your bacteria were, the better your HDL and triglycerides," Dr. Tara Narula, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told "CBS This Morning."
So how can you improve your gut's microbiome?
"There are a couple of things you can do. Obviously, your diet affects it. Eating a diet that's high in fruits and vegetables, lower in red meat, and high in fiber," Narula said. "Also prebiotics and probiotics can help."
But she points out that your gut's microbiome is created over time from the day you're born. "Even whether you're a cesarean section versus a vaginal delivery starts to affect the bacteria in your gut," she explained. "Then whether you're breast fed or formula fed, and then the diet you eat throughout your life."
The environment where you grew up also plays a role. "Whether you're in New York City or somewhere else in the country, you're exposed to different bacteria," Narula said. Finally, overuse of antibiotics and excessive sanitizing can lead to a depletion of bacteria diversity in the gut.
The current study confirms prior research the role of stomach bacteria plays in heart health. The researchers say that while more diverse and comprehensive studies are needed, they hope their findings will one day lead to new therapies to alter the gut bacteria types in individuals to help prevent heart disease.
"We also hope our findings inspire microbiologists to continue to research the function of these bacteria and their specific role in the regulation of lipid metabolism," lead study author Jingyuan Fu said in a statement.