Are you eating a diet heavy in processed or fast foods? Chances are good you’re eating way too much salt and setting yourself up for a lot of cardiovascular problems.

You’re already thinking, “I never touch a salt shaker at dinner or when I’m eating out.” More than 75 percent of the salt you consume hides in the processed foods you eat on the run or in a restaurant, according to the American Heart Association.

The average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams of salt every day, nearly 50 percent more than the 2,300 milligrams (1 teaspoon) recommended by most health experts.

Left unchecked, all of that extra salt in your body is a silent force that can lead to high blood pressure and, in time, heart disease, which leads the list of the top 10 causes of death among all Americans.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn all that extra salt harms your gut health too. But, a recent study on animals and human subjects appearing in Nature – a team-up between researchers at MIT and Berlin’s Max Delbruck Center and Charite – offers a bit hope.

Previous work has shown how a high-salt diet harms the body’s immune system by increasing the production of Th-17 cells that trigger inflammation and elevate a patient’s risks of hypertension.

For this new study, researchers sharply increased the salt intake of mice (eight times) and 12 healthy men (nearly three times) for two weeks apiece compared to healthier diets to determine how their bodies would react.

In both sets of tests, the composition of gut bacteria in mice and men changed for the worse with drops in Lactobacillus. These declines were also marked by expected increases in inflammatory Th-17 cells and higher blood pressure.

Interestingly, when probiotics containing Lactobacillus were introduced the collective gut and cardiovascular health of both sets of test subjects improved rapidly too, underscoring a link between salt and gut bacteria.

(Both EndoMune Advanced Probiotic for adults and EndoMune Jr contain multiple strains of beneficial bacteria, including Lactobacillus).

Extra salt harms your brain

According to researchers, heart disease may not be the only health issue affected by excessive salt intake either, as the uptick in inflammation may trigger the development of autoimmune diseases similar to multiple sclerosis.

A more recent study on salt appearing in Nature Neuroscience tied the accumulation of Th-17 cells in the gut (they produce proteins that suppress nitric oxide which reduces the supply of blood to the brain) to damaged neurons and cognitive problems related to the gut-brain axis.

“We discovered that mice fed a high-salt diet developed dementia even when blood pressure did not rise,” said senior author Dr. Costantino Iadecola, director of the Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute (BMRI) and the Anne Parrish Titzell Professor of Neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine, according to a press release.

“This was surprising since, in humans, the deleterious effects of salt on cognition were attributed to hypertension.”

Despite the restorative power of probiotics mentioned in the MIT study, researchers were concerned consumers might take them in hopes of canceling out the effect of eating of salty, fatty foods.

Yet, as we’ve seen in previous reports documenting the production of TMAO (trimethylene n-oxide), the gut is much more strongly connected to heart disease than many experts previously assumed.

Probiotics certainly aren’t “magic pills” that can cure any disease, but even the experts have come to appreciate the many ways the gut touches all parts of human health.

Taking a probiotic, ideally with multiple strains of beneficial bacteria like EndoMune, is quickly becoming a must if you want to protect your health, safely, effectively and naturally.