The Gut-Pain Connection You Should Know About
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said all healing begins in the gut. And scientists continue to prove him correct as they unravel how a healthy gut microbiome plays a role in weight loss1, disease prevention2, and much more. As we know, diet plays a crucial role in maintaining a healthy gut environment and dysbiosis, or a gut-flora imbalance, ramps up inflammation3, and triggers many illnesses4 including inflammatory bowel disease.
As a doctor of physical therapy, gut health provides insight into why my patients (especially overweight or obese patients) develop osteoarthritis5 in non-weight-bearing joints like the wrist, by pointing to a problem with systemic inflammation. And while my patients understand how an out-of-whack gut affects digestion, they don’t always make the connection between gut health and joint pain or other problems like headaches, mood swings, weight gain, or fatigue that often accompany pain.
Gut problems can trigger pain.
How does this work? First, consider that fact that your gut maintains a solid barrier between your digestive tract and your internal environment, allowing important nutrients to pass through while keeping out everything else. Maintaining the integrity of the gut is a one-cell-thick barrier that forms a tight junction, which keeps out foreign invaders like bacteria, toxins, and large undigested food particles.
When these tight junctions are injured, that barrier becomes inflamed and porous; bacteria, toxins, and undigested food particles start slipping through. We call these foreign invaders antigens, or foreign substances that trigger6 an immune response. A double whammy ensues: You’re not getting optimal nutrients while foreign invaders barge through, a condition called intestinal permeability or leaky gut.
This connection has everything to do with inflammation.
Your immune system responds with antibodies, which attack and destroy these antigens. When an antibody binds with an antigen, an immune complex occurs. Persistent leaky gut ramps up these immune complexes; they circulate around your body and deposit into various tissues and organs including—you guessed it—skeletal muscles and joints, creating more inflammation. Leaky gut also contributes to autoimmune diseases7, or immune responses against specific tissues that create damage and loss of function. When that happens in your joints, inflammation creates pain, swelling, and stiffness. While multifactorial, researchers link8 leaky gut with rheumatoid arthritis as bacterial products slip through your gut lining and deposit in your joints, creating an immune reaction.
You can reduce pain by healing the gut.
When my patients heal their leaky gut, they finally put out the fire that feeds inflammation. That healing calms their immune system and in turn decreases pain. I have seen people reduce their symptoms naturally, without drugs or surgery. Beyond focusing on a whole-foods diet that eliminates food intolerances, I’ve found these seven strategies to optimize gut health to reverse pain:
1. Step up your fiber.
Studies show9 that sufficient dietary fiber might be your best strategy to maintain a healthy microbiome. Among its benefits, fiber helps pull toxins from your gut for elimination.
2. Eat more inflammatory foods that can help fight inflammation.
Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties10 and help alleviate pain11. If wild-caught fish isn’t part of your diet, take a high-quality fish oil supplement with about 3,000 milligrams of EPA and DHA.
3. Repopulate smartly.
Probiotics help re-establish12 a balanced gut microbiome. Fermented foods including coconut yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut are good sources of probiotics, but if you don’t regularly eat them, look for a professional multistrain probiotic supplement with billions of microorganisms. Spore based probiotics also have been shown to reduce LPS (lipopolysaccharides) that are elevated in leaky gut.
4. Get sufficient vitamin D.
5. Ditch the gluten.
If you have joint pain or other types of pain, gluten's gotta go. Gliadin is the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley many people are sensitive to, and it can cause15 an outright autoimmune reaction for some people. Your immune system can see gluten as the enemy and will unleash weapons to attack it, resulting in inflammation.
6. Nix nightshades.
Colorful bell peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants provide nutrients and phytonutrients, but these nightshades can be a problem for patients with leaky gut, autoimmune disease, or osteoarthritis. Nightshades contain glycoalkyloids16, which can create gut problems.
Joe Tatta, DPT, CNS is a doctor of physical therapy, board certified nutrition specialist, and functional medicine practitioner specializing in treating persistent pain caused by lifestyle-related musculoskeletal, metabolic, and autoimmune health issues. He received his doctor of physical therapy degree from Arcadia University and currently lives in New York, NY.
Today, Joe's mission is to create a new paradigm around treating persistent pain and reverse our global pain epidemic. He is the creator of the Healing Pain Online Summit and The Healing Pain Podcast, designed to broaden the conversation around natural strategies toward solving persistent pain. He is also the author of Heal Your Pain Now, a revolutionary program to reset your brain and body for a pain-free life.