An imbalance or lack of diversity in the body’s microbiome – the good and bad bacteria living in our intestinal tract – directly affects your immune system and, quite often, is at the root of a wide range of chronic ailments. Just take a look through the articles here on my website, and you’ll find a connection between gut health and hormone function, thyroid disease, skin disorders, and many other autoimmune diseases.
Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, is a painful swelling of the joints that can also result in bone loss. RA is one of the myriad autoimmune diseases that rheumatologists and the overall medical community are now realizing has an important connection to poor gut health. It is believed that a proliferation of a particular bacteria, Prevotella copri, in people with RA can either trigger inflammation in the joints or displace bacteria that act as anti-inflammatory agents.
In a study reported by and partially funded by the National Institutes of Health, the gut bacteria of 114 individuals – both healthy people and participants with early-onset RA or psoriatic arthritis – was tested. Fully three-quarters of the participants with early-onset RA and 38 percent of those with psoriatic arthritis were found to have Prevotella copri in their microbiome and that increased levels of P. copri “correlated with reductions in several groups of beneficial microbes.” Additionally, two separate studies published by immunologist Veena Taneja, Ph.D. at the Mayo Clinic, indicated that gut bacteria may even be able to prevent RA or predict a susceptibility to the disorder, both of which offer a chance at staving off the condition before it even starts.
Leaky gut syndrome may also be a culprit – when bacteria, food and allergens pass through perforations in the intestinal lining of a person with leaky gut, they can cause an autoimmune response that then creates joint inflammation.
Both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications may mask the symptoms of RA temporarily, but they don’t heal the condition. Symptoms are merely indicators that something is wrong in the body, but the only way to stop or control them is to find and address the root cause. In addition, medications of any kind come with a host of potential side effects and health risks, some of which are serious or can create new problems. Much like the symptoms of disease, side effects are warning signs that a medication is negatively impacting a function or an organ of the body.
For the over 1.5 million Americans who suffer from RA, the fact that the condition lies in a bacterial imbalance is actually good news, and it is especially good for anyone who heeds the early warning signs of gut bacteria that lacks diversity, offering an opportunity for prevention. Correcting any bacterial imbalance and introducing bacteria that may decrease disease progression and symptoms is the ultimate goal, but only after being tested by your functional medicine doctor to determine your body’s individual needs and to assess whether you have leaky gut. Probiotics are not a one-size-fits all solution, and more needs to be considered – allergies, food sensitivities and your medical history are among the important factors in finding the correct course of action for getting your microbiome back into balance.
In the meantime, there are some dietary changes you can make to help get your gut started on a positive course. Replace foods that are highly processed, contain high amounts of sodium and sugar, and fast foods with healthier options: fermented foods like pickled vegetables, high-fiber foods including fresh fruits and veggies, and anti-inflammatory foods higher in omega-3s such as walnuts, salmon, grass-fed beef, and others are all good choices. Organic foods are always the best option whenever possible, and always read labels carefully for added sugars, chemicals and sodium that may turn a potentially good selection into an undesirable one.
A healthy gut will reward you in plenty of other ways too – as your immune system gets stronger, you may see other health issues lessen or clear up as well. It’s never too early or too late to get your microbiome in balance!