Blog How your gut microbiome impacts spinal health


In recent years, scientific research has increasingly highlighted the importance of gut health and its far-reaching impacts on various bodily functions. Terms like the "gut-brain axis" and the "gut-skin axis" have entered mainstream discussions, emphasising how the microbiota within our intestines can influence our mental health and skin conditions, respectively. Another fascinating and relatively lesser-known connection is the gut-disc axis, which explores the relationship between gut health and spinal disc health. This comprehensive guide delves into the intricacies of the gut-disc axis, shedding light on how gut microbiota can impact spinal health and offering practical advice for maintaining a healthy gut to prevent disc-related issues.

The gut microbiota: An overview

Gut microbiome and microbiota explained

What are gut microbiota?

The human gut is home to trillions of microorganisms, collectively known as the gut microbiota. These microorganisms include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbes, which coexist symbiotically within our digestive tract. The gut microbiota plays a crucial role in digestion, nutrient absorption, immune function, and the synthesis of essential vitamins.

What is the gut microbiome?

The gut microbiome encompasses the gut microbiota along with their genetic material and the surrounding environmental conditions. It includes not only the microorganisms themselves but also their genomes and the molecules they produce, such as metabolites. The microbiome reflects the broader ecological and functional aspects of the microbial community within the gut.

The role of gut microbiota in inflammation

One of the primary functions of the gut microbiota is to maintain a balanced immune response. A healthy gut microbiota helps to regulate inflammation by controlling the production of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory compounds. However, when the balance of these microorganisms is disrupted—a condition known as dysbiosis—it can lead to chronic inflammation, which is linked to a variety of health issues, including autoimmune diseases, metabolic disorders, and even mental health conditions.

The spinal discs: Structure & function


 

Anatomy of spinal discs

The spinal column is composed of 24 vertebrae, which are separated by intervertebral discs. These discs act as shock absorbers like you have in your car or bike, cushioning the vertebrae and allowing for flexibility and movement. Each intervertebral disc consists of two main components: the annulus fibrosus and the nucleus pulposus. The annulus fibrosus is the tough, outer layer made of collagen fibers, while the nucleus pulposus is the gel-like core that provides elasticity and absorbs impact.

Common spinal disc problems

Spinal discs are prone to various issues, such as herniation, degeneration, and lumbago. 

Herniated discs occur when the nucleus pulposus protrudes through a tear in the annulus fibrosus, potentially compressing nearby nerves and causing pain. This pain can manifest in various ways, including lower back pain, leg pain, or pain localised to specific areas like the knee or foot. Very often, I have had patients come to me with knee pain, but through physical examination, it turned out that the back was the underlying cause. 

Degenerative disc disease involves the gradual breakdown of the discs over time, leading to chronic pain and reduced mobility. 

Lumbago, or lower back pain, is often associated with disc problems and can significantly impact a person's quality of life.

The gut-disc axis: Exploring the connection

Inflammation & spinal disc health

The link between gut health and spinal disc health primarily revolves around inflammation. Chronic inflammation in the gut, often resulting from dysbiosis, can contribute to systemic inflammation. This systemic inflammation can affect various tissues and organs, including the spinal discs. Research suggests that inflammatory cytokines produced in the gut can travel through the bloodstream and reach the spinal discs, exacerbating existing disc issues or even contributing to their development.

Gut dysbiosis & disc degeneration

Emerging evidence indicates that gut dysbiosis may play a role in the degeneration of spinal discs. Dysbiosis can lead to an overproduction of pro-inflammatory cytokines and a decrease in anti-inflammatory compounds, creating an environment that promotes disc degeneration. Additionally, dysbiosis can impair nutrient absorption, depriving the spinal discs of essential nutrients required for their maintenance and repair.

The microbiota-spine connection: Key studies

Recent studies have explored the concept of the "gut-disc axis," suggesting a potential link between gut microbiota and intervertebral disc health, including conditions such as lumbar herniation. The gut-disc axis theory posits that gut microbes can influence the microenvironment of intervertebral discs (IVD) through various mechanisms, such as immune modulation, metabolite production, and inflammation regulation.

Mechanisms of influence

Immune modulation: Gut microbiota can influence the systemic immune response, potentially affecting the inflammation levels within the IVDs. Dysbiosis, or an imbalance in gut microbiota, may lead to chronic low-grade inflammation, which is a known contributor to disc degeneration and herniation⁽¹⁾⁽²⁾.

Metabolite production: Microbes in the gut produce various metabolites, including short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which can have systemic effects. These metabolites can reach the IVDs through the bloodstream and may influence disc health by modifying the local microenvironment⁽¹⁾⁽²⁾.

Barrier function and inflammation: Increased intestinal permeability, often referred to as "leaky gut," can allow bacterial translocation and systemic spread of microbial products. This can lead to local and systemic inflammation, potentially affecting IVD integrity⁽²⁾.

Research evidence

  • A study using Mendelian randomization found a significant association between gut microbiota composition and the risk of intervertebral disc degeneration (IDD) and low back pain. This suggests a potential causal relationship where improving gut health might positively impact disc health⁽²⁾⁽³⁾.
  • Another review highlighted that gut microbiome dysbiosis could lead to increased systemic inflammation and altered immune responses, thereby exacerbating conditions like intervertebral disc degeneration and low back pain⁽¹⁾.
  • Further research in the European Spine Journal discussed causal associations between gut microbiota with intervertebral disk degeneration, low back pain, and sciatica, emphasizing the bidirectional nature of this relationship⁽³⁾.
  • A study published in the European Spine Journal found that human intervertebral discs harbor a unique microbiome, and dysbiosis in this microbiome determines health and disease states of the disc⁽⁴⁾. This research provides crucial insights into the direct microbial influence on disc health.
  • A groundbreaking clinical study published in 2018 provided further evidence for the gut-disc axis⁽⁵⁾. While this study focused on the direct impact of Propionibacterium acnes on intervertebral disc degeneration, it also investigated the relationship between gut microbiota and lumbar disc degeneration (LDD) in patients. The study found significant differences in gut microbiota composition between patients with and without LDD. Key findings included:
    1. Decreased gut microbial diversity in LDD patients, associated with more severe disc degeneration.
    2. Specific changes in bacterial populations, notably an increase in Bacteroides and a decrease in Prevotella in LDD patients.
    3. Higher levels of serum inflammatory cytokines (TNF-α and IL-1β) in LDD patients, correlating with changes in gut microbiota composition.
    4. Alterations in microbial metabolic pathways in LDD patients, particularly those involved in glycan biosynthesis and metabolism.
This clinical evidence supports the gut-disc axis theory, suggesting that gut microbiota dysbiosis may contribute to the development and progression of lumbar disc degeneration. The researchers proposed that these findings could potentially lead to new preventive and therapeutic strategies for LDD, focusing on modulating the gut microbiome.

These studies collectively underscore the complex relationship between gut microbiota, disc health, and related conditions such as low back pain and sciatica. While these findings are promising, it is important to note that the exact mechanisms and the strength of these associations are still under investigation. Current evidence suggests that improving gut health may have a beneficial impact on conditions like intervertebral disc degeneration and low back pain, but more clinical studies are needed to establish definitive therapeutic protocols.

Practical strategies for maintaining a healthy gut

Probiotic rich foods

Diet & nutrition

A balanced diet rich in fibre, probiotics, and prebiotics is essential for maintaining a healthy gut microbiota. Fibre-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. Probiotic foods, like yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi, contain live beneficial bacteria that can help restore gut balance. Prebiotics, found in foods like garlic, onions, and bananas, serve as food for these beneficial bacteria, supporting their growth and activity.

Lifestyle factors

In addition to diet, several lifestyle factors can influence gut health. Regular physical activity has been shown to promote a diverse and balanced gut microbiota, while excessive alcohol consumption and smoking can disrupt gut balance. Stress management is also crucial, as chronic stress can negatively impact the gut microbiota and increase inflammation. Practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and adequate sleep can help reduce stress levels and support gut health.

Supplements & medications

Probiotic and prebiotic supplements can be beneficial for those struggling to maintain gut health through diet alone. Probiotic supplements contain live beneficial bacteria, while prebiotic supplements provide the necessary nutrients for these bacteria to thrive. Additionally, certain medications, such as antibiotics, can disrupt gut balance. If antibiotics are necessary, taking probiotics alongside them can help mitigate their impact on the gut microbiota.

Preventing spinal disc issues through gut health

anti-inflammatory diet can help reduce systemic inflammation and support spinal disc health

Anti-inflammatory diet

An anti-inflammatory diet can help reduce systemic inflammation and support spinal disc health. This diet emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. Foods like fatty fish, nuts, seeds, leafy greens, and berries are known for their anti-inflammatory properties and can contribute to a healthier gut and spine.

Hydration & exercise

Staying hydrated is crucial for maintaining the health of spinal discs, as they rely on adequate water intake to remain supple and functional. Regular exercise, particularly activities that promote spinal flexibility and core strength, can also support disc health. Practices like yoga and Pilates are excellent for maintaining spinal alignment and reducing the risk of disc-related issues.

Stress reduction techniques

As mentioned earlier, stress management is vital for both gut and spinal health. Chronic stress can lead to increased inflammation and exacerbate disc problems. Incorporating stress reduction techniques into your daily routine, such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or spending time in nature, can help lower stress levels and promote overall well-being.

deep breathing exercise

Conclusion: The future of gut-disc axis research

The emerging field of gut-disc axis research holds great promise for understanding the complex interactions between gut health and spinal disc health. As our knowledge of the gut microbiota continues to expand, we are likely to uncover even more connections between the gut and various bodily systems. By prioritizing gut health through diet, lifestyle changes, and appropriate supplementation, we can take proactive steps to support not only our digestive health but also our spinal health and overall well-being.

Embracing a holistic approach

Embracing a holistic approach to health, one that considers the intricate connections between different bodily systems is essential for achieving optimal health outcomes. The gut-disc axis exemplifies how interconnected our bodies truly are and underscores the importance of maintaining a balanced gut microbiota for preventing and managing spinal disc issues.

Looking ahead

As research progresses, we can anticipate more targeted interventions and therapies aimed at modulating the gut microbiota to support spinal health. In the meantime, adopting healthy lifestyle practices and making informed dietary choices remain powerful tools for nurturing our gut and protecting our spines.
Thank you for joining me on this exploration of the gut-disc axis. By staying informed and proactive, we can work towards a future where gut health and spinal health are seamlessly integrated into our approach to overall wellbeing.


Thank you for joining me on exploring the fascinating connection between gut and spinal disc health. By staying informed and proactive, we can work towards a future where gut health and spinal health are seamlessly integrated into our approach to overall well-being.

Sources:

  1. Li, W., Lai, K., Chopra, N. et al. Gut-disc axis: A cause of intervertebral disc degeneration and low back pain?. Eur Spine J 31, 917–925 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00586-022-07152-8
  2. Geng, Z., Wang, J., Chen, G. et al. Gut microbiota and intervertebral disc degeneration: a bidirectional two-sample Mendelian randomization study. J Orthop Surg Res 18, 601 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13018-023-04081-0
  3. Fang, M., Liu, W., Wang, Z. et al. Causal associations between gut microbiota with intervertebral disk degeneration, low back pain, and sciatica: a Mendelian randomization study. Eur Spine J 33, 1424–1439 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00586-024-08131-x
  4. Rajasekaran S, Soundararajan DCR, Tangavel C, Muthurajan R, Sri Vijay Anand KS, Matchado MS, Nayagam SM, Shetty AP, Kanna RM, Dharmalingam K. Human intervertebral discs harbour a unique microbiome and dysbiosis determines health and disease. Eur Spine J. 2020 Jul;29(7):1621-1640. doi: 10.1007/s00586-020-06446-z. Epub 2020 May 14. PMID: 32409889.
  5. Lin Y, Jiao Y, Yuan Y, Zhou Z, Zheng Y, Xiao J, Li C, Chen Z, Cao P. Propionibacterium acnes induces intervertebral disc degeneration by promoting nucleus pulposus cell apoptosis via the TLR2/JNK/mitochondrial-mediated pathway. Emerg Microbes Infect. 2018 Jan 10;7(1):1. doi: 10.1038/s41426-017-0002-0. PMID: 29323102; PMCID: PMC5837142.


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