Written by: Kevin Cann
For the millions of people in the world that suffer from mental illness, just snapping out of their negative moods is not an option. You may ask someone why they feel angry or sad all of the time, and they just can’t give you an explanation. They might say something like “I do not know why I feel like this, but I just do.” For those of us that do not suffer from mental illness this may be very difficult to comprehend. However, for those that are suffering, they may not truly know what is bothering them, and there is a reason for this.
We have ten times more bacteria in our bodies than we have human cells. Each one of us is an individual planet that gives refuge to hundreds of trillions of different bacteria. These bacteria actually influence the person that we are, and much like no individual is the same, no individual has the exact same bacterial makeup. These bacteria can actually influence our behavior, and an argument could be formed that they make us who we are.
These bacteria release chemicals into our bloodstream that can cross the blood brain barrier and actually influence our mood and behavior. They release some of the same chemicals used by our neurons. These chemicals are known as neurotransmitters, and some examples of them are serotonin, dopamine, and GABA.
The most popular group of prescription anti-depressants are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). They increase the amount of serotonin around the neuron, and in return our depression and anxiety should diminish. The problem with prescription drugs is over time they lead to desensitization of the receptor cells so more is needed until the system becomes overworked and the medications no longer produce the desirable outcome. This is why medications for mood disorders are constantly being increased and changed.
If mood disorders are a decrease, or loss of balance with these neurotransmitters, and our gut bacteria produce these chemicals, then perhaps the next question should be “is there an imbalance in gut bacteria leading to the imbalance in neurotransmitters?”
This is a question that Dr. Emeran Mayer of the University of California. Los Angeles asked. He and his team looked at MRI scans and microbiota makeup of thousands of volunteers. What they found was nothing short of remarkable. They found that the connections of brain regions differed depending on the makeup of the gut bacteria (1).
This research does not show definitively that our gut bacteria is the cause for mental illness. However, there have been some promising studies performed on mice. One study in particular, researchers fed one group of mice broth that was fortified with lactobacillus rhamnosus, and one group of mice broth without any of the bacteria.
The researchers continued this feeding for approximately a month, and then tested the mice for signs of anxiety and depression. This is done by timing how long it takes the mice to enter unexplored areas of a maze. They also measured mRNA gene expression associated with anxiety and depression and stress levels in the mice. The mice fed the broth with the bacteria showed less anxiety and depression signs than the control group (2).
Now mice are not humans. Humans have a much more complex environment that can influence their emotions in a number of ways. However, many people report an increase in mood and energy when they take up a paleo diet (along with a number of other positive health issues). Perhaps a reason for this has to do with the influence the paleo diet has on our gut flora.
Our gut microbiome has evolved with us from the beginning. Breads, pastas, and other processed foods are a relatively new piece to our diet. Our gut bacteria require fruits, vegetables, and meats to flourish. They actually feed off of the fiber that we do not digest. If we have a diet that is high in processed foods and lower in fruits and vegetables, this can cause an unwanted shift in our gut flora that can lead to negative mood, lower energy, and even obesity.
The answer to having a better mood may not require a prescription (unless prescriptions of probiotics become available). In some cases, like that of major depressive disorder, medication may be a requirement to feel better. Options should always be discussed with a doctor first. However, cleaning up the diet and taking a probiotic does not come with negative consequences. The only consequences of a eating more fruits, vegetables, and meats is feeling better.