Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they may one day have a new treatment for high blood pressure that focuses on what might seem an unlikely place — your stomach.
The researchers say laboratory tests show that a probiotic can boost beneficial bacteria in the human gut that prevent pro-inflammatory immune cells from increasing in number, the university said in a statement Wednesday.
The pro-inflammatory immune cells have been linked with hypertension, the university said, although the exact mechanism is not known.
“Inflammation can lead to a lot of different diseases in ways we don’t fully understand,” said Eric Alm, director of MIT’s Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics and a senior author on the study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
“It appears that the bacteria in our guts is related to those levels of inflammation,” he said.
The report comes amid heightened concern about the dangers of hypertension. On Monday, leading heart experts issued new guidelines that mean tens of millions more Americans will meet the criteria for the condition and will need to alter their lifestyles or take medicines to treat it.
High blood pressure will now be defined as 130/80 millimeters of mercury or greater for anyone with a significant risk of heart attack or stroke. Previous guidelines defined high blood pressure as 140/90.
When Alm and his team of MIT researchers, as well as scientists from Germany, began studying the bacteria in the human gut and its relationship to high blood pressure, they didn’t expect to find an organism that could reduce the symptoms of a high-salt diet, he said.
“We didn’t set out to discover a probiotic or anything like that. That discovery was … very surprising, and probably worth deeper study,” he said.
The researchers found that when mice, as well as 12 human subjects, increased their sodium intakes, the levels of the beneficial gut bacteria dropped, while inflammatory cells and blood pressure increased, the university said. The researchers gave mice with high blood pressure a probiotic containing the beneficial bacteria lactobacillus murinus, and hypertension was reduced.
The human subjects were given a different commercially available probiotic before going on a high-salt diet. They maintained normal blood pressure levels, but the probiotic is known to have side effects.
The probiotic tested on the mice is in early stages of research and still needs to be tested on humans, Alm said, but it could be a promising treatment for hypertension.
Still, he said, if the new probiotic becomes available for use, it’s no excuse to pile on the salt.
“There are a lot of reasons to eat a healthy diet, and that’s what I would recommend,” he said.