So many aspects of good health begin in the gut. Understanding gut health is a relatively new field. We’re constantly learning more about the microbiome and how it impacts the body. What we do know is that it plays an integral role in many aspects of health, including blood sugar regulation. It’s so essential doctors have argued that the microbiome should be treated as an organ.
While we know a healthy microbiome is essential, we’re still learning how to take care of it. A new study in mice has suggested that pain nerves in the gut play a prominent role that was previously unknown.
We understand the necessary reasons for some forms of pain. Pain from an injury will prevent us from using a part of our body until it heals. Pain from foods will stop us eating poisonous things. But pain in the gut may have a different function.
In mice, the painful inflammatory condition called colitis causes the production of protective mucus in the gut. The mucus clears out whatever is causing the pain to occur. Even when the mice don’t feel pain, bacteria interacting with the nerves aid the production of the beneficial mucus. Beyond keeping the gut free of irritants, mucus protects the linings of the intestines from scrapes and acts as a barrier against infections.
“It turns out that pain may protect us in more direct ways than its classic job to detect potential harm and dispatch signals to the brain,” said senior investigator Dr. Isaac Chiu, an associate professor of immunobiology at Harvard’s Blavatnik Institute. “The nervous system has a major role in the gut beyond just giving us an unpleasant sensation and that it’s a key player in gut barrier maintenance and a protective mechanism during inflammation.”
In the study, mice with fewer pain neurons had less mucus. They also suffered from an imbalance of useful and harmful microbes. The mice didn’t need to experience pain to see benefits from their pain neurons. Good bacteria interacting with the pain receptors still triggered the response. Spicy food also sets the nerves off!
Opioids and migraine medications have long been known to upset the balance of the microbiome. The researchers believe it could be that they are blocking these pain responses in the gut.
“These drugs could be having a negative effect if they cause the mucus lining of the gut in people to be thinner and the microbiome in the gut to be dysregulated,” said Dr. Chiu.
“These findings reshape our thinking about chronic inflammatory disease, and open up a whole new approach to therapeutic intervention,” said study senior author Dr. David Artis, director of the Jill Roberts Institute for Research in Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
However, while the damaging impact of drugs on the microbiome is known, this explanation as to how is just a theory. It’s utterly untested in both animals and people. It’s certainly not a reason to stop using any long-term pain medications you are taking. If you are concerned for your gut health and regularly take pain medication, speak with your doctor about the best ways you can support your microbiome.