November 16, 2022 – Pain is how our bodies tell us something is wrong, alerting us to injury or infection and helping doctors make a diagnosis. But the pain is not pleasant, so we often try to prevent it with medication.
But surprise New study Harvard Medical School researchers suggest that preventing acute pain may actually lead to pain in the gut.
That’s because pain may be an essential part of the process that protects the intestines from damage.
In the studyPain neurons in mice helped regulate the protective mucus that lines the intestines, and secrete more mucus in response to inflammation.
“These neurons signal to goblet cells in the intestine that make mucus,” says the study’s senior author. Isaac Chew, PhD, associate professor of immunobiology at Harvard University’s Blavatnik Institute. “This is very important because mucus protects the gut barrier from potentially harmful microbes and tissue injury.”
Tampering with this process can throw an imbalance in the gut, Chiu says, setting the stage for inflammation and increasing the risk of painful bowel diseases like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
What did the researchers do?
In the study, the researchers bred mice that lacked pain neurons. These mice produced less protective mucus, Chiu says, and “their gut microbiome became disorganized.” “They also became more likely to develop colitis” (Inflammation of the gut characterized by abdominal pain and bowel problems).
To find out why, the researchers took a closer look at those mucus-producing goblet cells. They found that the cells contain a receptor called RAMP1 that helps them respond to pain. This receptor is activated by a neuropeptide called CGRP, which is released by nociceptive neurons in response to pain.
Without this CGRP or those receptors, the message won’t get to the gut to produce more mucus – and mucus production decreases.
“We need this signal to maintain a healthy gut,” says Chiu.
Specifically regarding a class of migraine medications that inhibit CGRP, Chiu notes.
“If we target CGRP in the long term, it can cause an imbalance in the health of the gut mucosa, including loss of good microbes and increased susceptibility to infections,” he says.
Furthermore, because painkillers are often used to treat patients with colitis, it may be important to consider potential adverse effects, say the researchers.
Why is this important
The study builds on growing research on “organ communication,” how molecules in the body interact between organs to help us maintain health. Highlights the gut-brain axis, and indicates between the digestive system and the central nervous system.
“Acute pain is designed to protect us from damage, so it makes sense that it could be associated with mucus secretion,” says Chiu. “If we miss this signal, we are more likely to have infected or inflamed intestines.”
On the other hand, too many pain signals probably won’t be helpful either.
“Chronic pain is on the other side of the coin,” says Chiu. “We need to find ways to preserve the good aspects of pain signaling, such as keeping the gut in balance, and turning off pain perception in the brain, which is the part that makes people suffer.”
That means a better understanding of the things that control pain signals in the gut, so we can “tune” them without stopping them completely, he says.
More research is needed to confirm the results in humans. But depending on how the research develops, this could change the way we deal with pain and open the door to new treatments for patients with bowel diseases, Chiu says.
In the meantime, improving the health of your gut may help regulate the pain signaling process, Chiu notes. Healthy microbes may stimulate enough pain fibers to keep mucus in check without contributing to gut pain. You can feed Healthy gut microbes By eating more fiber and fermented foods and less fried foods and red meat. Exercise, stress management, and going outside can help, too.