Stiff, painful fingers? Aching knees? A chronic pain in the back? We often attribute these ills to an unfortunate effect of aging. It’s arthritis, we say, resigned. But what if the pain in our joints was actually caused by an imbalance in another part of the body, in the gut?

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine reviews several studies that uncover links between microbes in the gut and other diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Rheumatologist Jose Scher found that people with RA had higher levels of a certain type of bug in the intestines than people without RA did. Scher also found that people with psoriatic arthritis had significantly lower levels of a type of bacteria than those without the inflammatory disease.

This connection isn’t just between the gut and arthritis—it’s a connection that can be found between the gut and any type of inflammation in the body.

Maybe you’ve just sprained your ankle and have been on Motrin, trying to hobble through your day, or maybe you’ve been taking birth control pills for years. Or perhaps you just had a viral gastroenteritis. Any of these situations can irritate the small intestine, causing a leaky gut or intestinal permeability—a condition when the food particles passing through the intestine “leak” into the blood stream, triggering the immune system to go into attack mode against the invaders.

In addition, most things that have co-evolved with us and live in our gut are camouflaged so that they can survive there. But when your gut is leaky, the camouflage doesn’t work as well. In fact it can be quite dangerous to us.

When your body tries to make antibodies against a camouflage, it often makes antibodies that inadvertently cross-react with your own body, resulting in autoimmunity. Because the leaky gut results in increased inflammation, if you have a predisposition to inflammation in your joints, this general increase in inflammation in your body will result in joint pain.

leaky gut joint pain

The recent research described in The Atlantic provides an interesting perspective on the relationship between leaky gut and more pronounced autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, inflammatory bowel disease, and multiple sclerosis.

This research suggests that even if you are not diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, if you have general joint discomfort, the problem may not dwell in your knee, but in your gut.

In her blog post, 9 Signs You Have a Leaky Gut, Amy Myers, MD outlines some additional symptoms that may indicate the problem is all in your stomach:

  1. Digestive issues (bloating, gas, irritable bowel syndrome, or diarrhea)
  2. Seasonal allergies or asthma
  3. Hormonal imbalances such as PMS
  4. Autoimmune diseases such as celiac disease, psoriasis or lupus
  5. Chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia
  6. Mood issues including depression, anxiety, ADD or ADHD
  7. Acne, rosacea, eczema
  8. Candida overgrowth
  9. Food allergies and intolerances

Counteracting a Leaky Gut

Angela came to me because she had restless leg syndrome. As we delved more deeply into her health history, we also discovered she had experienced years of digestive issues from acid reflux to irritable bowel syndrome—all stemming from a leaky gut.

For Angela, and for my other patients who have leaky gut, I prescribe a five-step approach:

  • Remove the irritant. This may be a bacteria or a medicine. Consult with your doctor before discontinuing a prescription medicine, but certainly remove junk food, simple carbohydrates, and alcohol from the mix. In Angela’s case, one of her irritants was actually a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) that she used, ironically, to address her digestive troubles. For some, comprehensive gut testing is recommended to discover the irritant(s).
  • Replace the irritant. Here, we substitute the removed element with healthy digestive constituents, such as hydrochloric acid or digestive enzymes. Co-treating with her prescribing provider, we gradually decreased Angela’s PPI dosage and introduced a different type of medicine, put her on some natural medicine support for her GI system, and removed bad gut bugs with an antibiotic.
  • Re-inoculate the gut. The next step is to provide probiotics and prebiotics to rebuild a healthy gut. Most people are surprised at the amount of probiotics I use (billion and billions), but that is what is necessary to affect the trillions of bacteria in the gut.
  • Repair the gut through nutrients such as glutathione, glutamine, vitamins, and minerals. The particular combination is based on a patient’s specific issue with the gut. In Angela’s case, I wanted to reduce the inflammation and help her gut heal. I also increased her magnesium with a supplement, suspecting that a magnesium deficiency caused her restless legs.
  • Rebalance is the last step, and it’s one that’s not done in the doctor’s office. Rebalancing is important in understanding how you got the dysfunctional gut in the first place, and how you can prevent it from recurring. Maintaining lifestyle balance, eating a healthy diet, and being aware of stress levels can help you continue your recovery.

As we’ve seen, a leaky gut can be connected to a variety of illnesses, but the good news is, this condition—all its various symptoms—can be treated. The most important thing is recognizing that the discomfort you experience, even if they occur in other places in your body, may all originate in your gut.