The alarm went off. Peter Krainsburg opened his eyes after struggling to lift his lead-heavy eyelids. His depression, something that had troubled him on and off for the past more than five years, had reemerged in the last couple of months. Every cell in his body felt like it were a block of five pounds. He simply couldn’t get to lift himself from his bed.
The mere thought of spending a 12-hour day in front of his computer filled him with terror. He was a Bitcoin Trader, one of the growing tribe of new-age enthusiasts who trade in virtual currencies, or cryptocurrencies. The extreme volatility in the markets and the promise of astronomical returns in unbelievably short times had attracted thousands of investors and traders. Peter was a frontline individual on the bleeding edge of crypto trading. He was often responsible for millions of dollars of clients’ money.
However, the stress had taken its toll. His depression had come to haunt him as a result of his fears of failure and of losing everything in the wake of a bad judgment call.
His phone is already overflowing with messages from his colleagues and clients. The digital assets markets, unlike traditional stock exchanges, never sleep. “Its scary to think that I may never come out of the quagmire if I step into it. And I cannot change this thinking whatever I do. It’s the same feeling every single day,” says Peter as he recollects those dark, gloomy days.
His wife, his constant companion and witness to his struggles, suggested he try the “mood probiotics” that had helped her get over her panic attacks. Peter had read about them – gut bacteria that helped with depression and anxiety – but he was skeptical. But its firsthand experience by his wife helped change his mind. In any case, the Prozac had lost its edge, so he decided to give probiotics a shot.
The Gut Flora – Mood Connection
Your gut does more than just help you in digestion and metabolism. When it comes to finding the root of wellness, the answer may lie in your gut. Microbiota, the community of bugs including bacteria that have set up their home in your gut, can influence every part of your body from the heart to the immune system. Diverse microbes even interact with the human nervous system by producing neurotransmitters that are pivotal for good mental health and well-being. So, in other words, your gut health can affect your happiness.
While theories around gut bacteria affecting our mood and mental state have been scoffed at by experts for quite some time now, the discovery of the gut-brain axis and a flurry of research studies to understand this unique relation, has unearthed new evidence to suggest that bacteria in our intestines do shape our behavior.
It is strange but true that the lowly gut bacteria affect your moods and thoughts, intellectual functions up high in your brain. But how is it possible?
Dr. Katerina Johnson of Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology refers to the gut-brain axis. She puts in, “There has been growing research linking the gut microbiome to the brain and behavior, known as the microbiome–gut–brain axis. Most research has been conducted in animals, whilst studies in humans have focused on the role of the gut microbiome in neuropsychiatric conditions. In contrast, my key interest was to look in the general population to see how variation in the types of bacteria living in the gut may be related to personality.”
Gut bacteria both produce and respond to the same neurochemicals, such as GABA, serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, acetylcholine and melatonin. The brain uses these to regulate mood and cognition. A study researched people with major depression and found that bacteria in their feces differed from healthy people.
We have recently discovered bidirectional links between stress and the microbiota. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is considered a “gut-brain disorder,” since it is often worsened by stress and IBS sufferers also have difficulties with depression or anxiety.
Research is going on whether gut bacteria is the reason behind mood symptoms in IBS, as well as the gastrointestinal pain, diarrhea and constipation. In patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), alterations in the gut microbiota may contribute to the development of symptoms such as depression, neurocognitive impairments (affecting memory, thought and communication), pain and sleep disturbance.
Mental health is closely linked to the quality and timing of sleep. Now studies prove that the gut microbiota can influence sleep quality and sleep-wake cycles (our circadian rhythm).
Two kinds of bugs, Faecalibacterium and Coprococcus, were both more common in people “who claimed to enjoy a high mental quality of life.” Meanwhile, people with depression had lower than average levels of the bacteria species like Coprococcus and Dialister.
Recently, a probiotic supplement containing Lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium bifidum was given with vitamin D to schizophrenia patients, which resulted in a significant improvement in the general and total PANSS scores.
Dysbiosis and inflammation of the gut have been linked to causing several mental illnesses including anxiety and depression, which are rising global issues today. Doctors have long known that mental health problems such as bipolar disorder and autism are often associated with inflammation.
Animal experiments proved that giving rats probiotics containing bacterium clears up inflammation and reduces stress-related behavior and the same principle applies to humans.
Probiotics, containing Lactobacillus, helps restore normal microbial balance, reduce intestinal permeability and restore microbiome and HPA-axis functionality and therefore have a potential role in the treatment and prevention of anxiety and depression.
Research opens the door to possible treatments for depression based on probiotics that boost levels of “good” bacteria in the intestines. However, there is still a long way to go before we can harness the microbiota in order to improve brain function and mental health.
A study that researched the effects of probiotics in humans showed that participants who took probiotics for 4 weeks had significantly reduced cognitive reactivity to sad mood, with reduced aggressive thoughts and negative self-contemplation.
Another psychological study established a link between the consumption of probiotics or fermented foods and a lessening of reported social anxiety in young adults.
The research authors studied the Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota and found significant reductions in gut symptoms. The researchers concluded that daily consumption of probiotics acts to preserve the diversity of gut microbiota and helps alleviate both psychological and physiological stress.
Recent bunch of studies investigated that probiotics yielded a small but significant effect in reducing anxiety and depression. A study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, found that introduction of Bifidobacterium probiotic into the guts of healthy participants reduced their feelings of stress and improved their memory.
“I think the link is pretty strong,” says Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London. “I’m not meeting anyone in the field who is saying there’s no link between your gut microbes and mental health.”
Scientists at the APC are focusing on the effects of probiotics and prebiotics on healthy populations rather than those with clinically diagnosed depression. But physicians will, one day, be recommending such supplements to fill microbiota gaps that may be contributing to their patients’ mental health issues.
“We will see a scenario where probiotics or prebiotics will be recommended for people with milder forms of depression or anxiety,” says Prof Ted Dinan, principal investigator at the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre (APC) at University College Cork. “We don’t have the trials at the moment to make those recommendations, but it will happen in the future.”
Taken together, though probiotics could benefit people with mental illnesses, the results of probiotic trials are highly discrepant, which could reflect differences in the treatments used. We need larger-scale studies with consistency in treatment choices and measured outcomes.
If these studies show positive results then it could open up novel vistas of opportunities for new bacteria-based therapies that could expand the landscape for mental health treatment that has been highly dependent on chemical entities that have limited and often disappointing use, not to mention the side effects.