There is an increasing amount of research into the important role gut microbiomes play in our overall health. These studies have demonstrated links between gut health and the immune system, autoimmune diseases, mood and mental health among many other health conditions.
So what is the connection and how can it help (or hurt) your health?
What is a gut microbiome?
The term “gut microbiome” refers specifically to the microorganisms living in your intestines. Each of us has approximately 300 to 500 different types of bacteria in our digestive tract. While some microorganisms are harmful to our health, many are incredibly beneficial (good bacteria) and even necessary to a healthy body. Having a wide variety of these good bacteria in your gut can enhance your immune system function, improve symptoms of depression, help combat obesity, and provide numerous other benefits.
How does gut health affect inflammation & the immune system?
Medical researchers are continually finding new evidence about the impact of the gut on the immune system. It’s thought that an unhealthy gut may increase systemic inflammation and alter the proper functioning of the immune system. This can lead to autoimmune diseases and recent research also now links it to obesity & osteoarthritis.
The Latest Research – Gut Health & Osteoarthritis
People who carry excess weight put extra strain on their joints. This, it was thought, explained the increased risk of osteoarthritis that comes with obesity. However, a recent study by researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York set out to explore what links there might be between diet, obesity, gut bacteria, and osteoarthritis.
The results indicated that it is the body’s response to unhealthy gut bacteria, causing inflammation that speeds up the process of osteoarthritis, rather than the weight itself. The inflammation causes the immune system to attack its own cells and cartilage in joints like the knee, which are subject to a lot of wear and are particularly susceptible.
“Cartilage is both a cushion and lubricant, supporting friction-free joint movements,” said Michael Zuscik, Associate Professor of Orthopaedics, who led the study.
“When you lose that, it’s bone on bone, rock on rock. It’s the end of the line and you have to replace the whole joint. Preventing that from happening is what we, as osteoarthritis researchers, strive to do – to keep that cartilage.”
Dr Eric Schott from the University of Rochester Medical Center also adds, “There are no treatments that can slow progression of osteoarthritis – and definitely nothing reverses it. But this study sets the stage to develop therapies that target the microbiome and actually treat the disease.”
It’s important to highlight that although this research is encouraging, it was conducted on mice, thus, its application and impact on humans is not yet completely determined. The leaders of this study plan to do further research by comparing the microbiomes of US veterans with and without obesity-related osteoarthritis. They will supplement some of these participants with prebiotics to gauge how much benefit this intervention might have in humans. (Please refer to the Further Reading below for detailed information on the University of Rochester Medical Center study)
Even without these results, we know that good gut health & being a healthy body weight reduces inflammation and improves overall health, so how do you improve your gut health?
Tips to help you Improve your Gut Health
A change of diet can have a big impact on gut health. A number of studies in people with arthritis have shown that switching to a Mediterranean diet can reduce pain, and improve mobility. The diet is rich in nuts, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, oily fish, and legumes. It also includes a moderate amount of red wine (1 glass a day). The fruit, vegetables and legumes contain lots of prebiotic fibres that will feed ‘good’ bacteria. Oily fish, rich in omega-3, has also been shown in trials to help prevent and reduce arthritis.
Here’s a list to get you started:
- Fresh vegetables (all kinds): Aim for variety and a minimum of four to five servings per day. Some of the best include beetroot; carrots; broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale; dark, leafy greens; onions; peas; salad greens; sea vegetables; squash/zucchini.
- Whole pieces of fruit (not juice): Three to four servings per day is a good amount for most people, especially apples, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, nectarines, oranges, pears, pink grapefruit, plums, pomegranates, red grapefruit or strawberries.
- Herbs, spices and teas: turmeric, ginger, basil, oregano, thyme, etc., plus green tea and organic coffee in moderation.
- Wild-caught fish, free-range eggs and grass-fed/pasture-raised meat: higher in omega-3 fatty acids than farm-raised foods and great sources of protein, healthy fats, and essential nutrients like zinc, selenium and B vitamins.
- Healthy fats: extra virgin olive oil, nuts/seeds.
- Ancient grains and legumes/beans: Two to three servings per day or less is best, especially black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, lentils, black rice, amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa.
- Probiotics: Probiotic foods contain “good bacteria” that populate your gut and fight off bad bacterial strains. Try to include probiotic foods like yoghurt, kombucha, kefir or cultured veggies (sauerkraut, kimchi) in your diet daily.
- Prebiotics: a type of indigestible plant fibre that feed the good bacteria that already live inside the large intestine. The more food, or prebiotics, that good bacteria have to eat, the more efficiently these live bacteria work and the healthier your gut will be. Examples include asparagus, onions, leeks, garlic, dandelion root, apples, jerusalem artichoke, cocoa, flaxseed, radishes, berries, bananas, seaweed and cabbage.
- Avoid these inflammatory foods:
- refined sugars – found in soft drinks, cookies, cake, lollies, ice cream, some breakfast cereals
- processed meats (cold cuts)
- trans fats – found in deep fried foods, fast foods, commercially baked goods
- processed snack foods – such as chips and crackers
- gluten, white bread & pasta & too many carbohydrates
- soybean oil and vegetable oil
- excessive alcohol
Other than diet, there are also other ways to improve gut health. These include lowering stress, avoiding antibiotics, getting enough sleep and staying hydrated.
A lot to consider, but the health outcomes are worth it! For further information about managing your condition refer to our website resources here or call our Arthritis Infoline in 1800 011 041.
Sources & Further Reading:
Daily Mail – DR Michael Mosley’s life plan: Sick of achy joints? You should follow your gut…
Medical News Today – Could gut bacteria cause joint pain?
Further Food – The Microbiome 101: Your Gut Health Explained
Healthline – What’s an Unhealthy Gut? How Gut Health Affects You
Arthritis Foundation – Mediterranean Diet for Osteoarthritis