You may have noticed that at any given moment your pain levels can fluctuate based on many different variables, including the weather, how much sleep you got the night before, and whether or not you are having a stressful day. But you may not have given much thought to the role that bacteria might be playing in how you feel.
You have hundreds of different types of bacteria living inside the gut that make up what is referred to as the microbiome, and like a fingerprint, each person’s microbiome is a bit unique but swayed by factors like diet, the environment, and lifestyle habits. Research has shown that the composition of the gut bacteria in healthy people often differs from those with certain diseases, including obesity, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and even depression.
As we start to learn more about how our microbiome affects our overall health, we are also starting to see evidence that it can also play a role in how much we hurt.
Consider a recent study published by researchers from the University of Rochester that looked at the effects of the microbiome on joint pain and swelling in mice. In comparing the gut bacteria of mice that had been plumped up on an unhealthy diet with mice kept on a healthy diet, they found that the obese mice’s gut bacteria was not only different than that of their slimmer counterparts, it also included inflammation-causing strains. These gut changes coincided with signs of inflammation throughout their bodies, including their joints. The researchers also found that when both sets of mice experienced cartilage damage to their knees, the obese mice with the inflammation-causing gut bacteria experienced a rapid deterioration of their joints compared to the other mice.
In a short amount of time, these unfortunate mice developed advanced osteoarthritis of their knees. When the researchers treated the obese mice with a prebiotic (a food source for growing healthy bacteria in the gut), they were able to prevent the inflammation and arthritic deterioration in their knee joints, without changing their body composition.
This is very interesting research, but despite this and other evidence suggesting that the microbiome can directly impact the amount of inflammation, arthritis, and ultimately the amount of pain that we experience, it is still unclear how to take advantage of this information to treat pain in our everyday lives. Unfortunately, in humans we have not found that simply adding a prebiotic to our diet will make all of the pain and swelling magically disappear. There may be a number of reasons for that, including the wide variation in microbiomes from person to person, and the unique environments that we each live in.
But, just because we don’t know exactly which foods might help improve gut health doesn’t mean we can’t give it try. I’ve personally made it a point to increase my intake of both prebiotics and probiotics (live, beneficial bacteria). Prebiotics can be found in fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, and you can get probiotics in foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut, or via supplements. As always, make sure to talk to your doctor before making any big changes or starting a supplement.
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