Are gut health and chronic pain related?

November 16, 2020

gut health “Gut health” has been a bit of a buzzword lately, so it’s no surprise that there have been recent developments related to how your gut health might be influencing chronic pain.

Scientists have known for a while that the gut microbiome plays a role in the development and maintenance of chronic pain. Research is ongoing to discover more about the mechanisms involved and how to best intervene or disconnect those relationships.

First, what is the gut microbiome?

Gut microbiome refers to the ecosystem that lines your large intestine. This includes resident bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other life forms, in addition to their genes. Gut microbiota refers to the actual “bugs” themselves, which are the community of beneficial organisms that coexist to help our immune systems ward off infections and more.

Gut microbiota can modulate, or tweak, the gut-brain axis, which enables them to influence brain function and pain sensation. Researchers are finding that imbalances in the microbiota-gut-brain axis can lead to metabolic and cardiovascular disease as well as certain neurological diseases, depression, and chronic pain.

Gut health: migraines and fibromyalgia

Two areas that are particularly interesting include the chronic pain problems of migraines and fibromyalgia. With migraines, inflammation and the nervous system’s influence on the gut are thought to play a role in how migraines develop. New research suggests that imbalances in gut microbiota contribute to migraine-like pain.

Fibromyalgia is a complicated disorder that affects 2 to 4 percent of the population. We do not have a cure for it yet. Symptoms include fatigue, impaired sleep and cognitive difficulties, but the disease is most often characterized by widespread chronic pain. Recent studies published in Pain Journal show that there are alterations in the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tracts of people with fibromyalgia. Approximately 20 different species of bacteria were found in either greater or are lesser quantities in the microbiomes of participants suffering from the disease than in the healthy control group.

The study also showed that the severity of a patient’s symptoms was directly correlated with an increased presence or a more pronounced absence of certain bacteria. This was a new finding that’s very interesting as well.

It’s not clear yet if the changes in gut bacteria seen in patients with fibromyalgia are markers of the disease or whether they play a role in causing it. The next step in the research is investigating if there are similar changes in the gut microbiomes of people with other conditions involving chronic pain, such as lower back pain, headaches, and neuropathic pain.

How to improve your gut health

This is a large topic to cover, and the right answers will vary somewhat from person to person. At Southside Pain Specialists, we work with nutritionists who can guide you in your specific situation.

But generally speaking, a healthy microbiome is maintained by lifestyle choices that promote microbial diversity and prevent damage to the gut. Eating foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates are associated with a “leaky gut,” which can lead to inflammation. Inflammation can affect the brain and its response to pain.

On the other hand, feeding your microbiome with high-fiber foods, such as whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, as well as omega-3 fats, can help lower inflammation. The gut needs probiotics, such as those found in fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut, to increase the microbe population in your body. You also need prebiotics, which are found in fiber-rich foods like apples, bananas, and broccoli, to stimulate the growth of the healthy microbes.

Here is more information about anti-inflammatory diets, which may be a good place to start for improving gut health. We are happy to provide more information related to gut health and how improving it may also improve your chronic pain. 

Add gut health to your list of questions to ask at your next appointment at Southside Pain Specialists

With highly specialized training and a multitude of pain relief options, Southside Pain Specialists follow the standards of the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, The American Board of Pain Medicine, and the International Spinal Injection Society. We work hard to provide patients with comprehensive, caring pain relief when they need it most. Check out our website or contact us today at 205.332.3155 to learn more.