According to the CDC, almost 53 million Americans are suffering from symptoms of arthritis, and while we know that physical injuries and conditions like obesity can lead to damaged tissues and cause joint pain, new research is giving scientists insight into the potential causes of inflammation in the body. It turns out that our health is directly linked to the up to 1,000 different species of bacteria that live in our digestive tract. How can gut health impact joint pain?

The Microbiome

There’s another world alive inside the human digestive tract, and it’s comprised of 10 times as many bacteria as there are cells in the body. These microflora are responsible for a number of processes in the body, including serving to stimulate the immune system, two-thirds of the cells of which are housed in the digestive tract. While plenty of “good” bacteria work to serve us, some “bad” bacteria or gut conditions can actually trigger chronic, non-infectious ailments like rheumatoid arthritis, a common culprit of joint pain. According to Veena Taneja, an immunologist at the Mayo Clinic, “It’s become more and more clear that these microbes can affect the immune system, even in diseases that are not in the gut.”

Inflammation and the Immune Response

If the healthy balance of bacteria in the gut is disrupted by the use of antibiotics, or through a diet of highly processed foods (like what Americans typically consume), symptoms of this poor gut health can occur all over the body. A great example is the incidence of irritable bowel syndrome in patients with fibromyalgia (a chronic pain syndrome); over 70% have both conditions, and it has officially been linked to small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). The best way to repair this imbalance and to reduce the related inflammation is to follow an anti-inflammatory diet like the Mediterranean diet, or to remove dairy and meat from most meals; Finnish researchers found that adopting a vegan diet changed the gut microbiome, which led to an improvement of arthritis symptoms including joint pain.

The Good, The Bad, and The Useful

Scientists aren’t only researching ways to eliminate inflammation by repairing gut health; they’re also looking into ways to make the gut itself reduce joint pain. Harvard microbiologist Dennis Kasper discovered a compound called PSA, which is released by bacteria called B. Fragilis, and it’s showing promise. Kaspar says that PSA more effectively and reliably modifies the immune system than medications, or even adjusting the balance of microbes. The byproduct of these bacteria simply instructs the immune system to ignore harmless targets, like your knees. Jose Sher, director of NYU’s Microbiome Center for Rheumatology and Autoimmunity, is optimistic; “In 10 or 15 years I think the microbiome will be a key therapeutic option for some of these diseases.”

Go With Your Gut

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