Biology / Health / Medicine / Microbiology / Science

You are what your microbes eat

It’s obvious that the phrase “you are what you eat” is true, but there’s also research which suggests your gut microbiota is really important in what you are as well — including in terms of what you might consider your personality. I’m an anxious person, which is probably no surprise to anyone who has ever interacted with me for a few seconds; at one point, I was hitting 21/21 on a test called the GAD-7. A score of 5 means mild anxiety, and a score of 10 means moderate anxiety. The threshold for severe anxiety is 15.

Now there’s a test I wish I hadn’t aced.

In any case, a recent study suggests that a dietary intervention might’ve been worth trying. Beibei Yang, Jinbao Wei, Peijun Ju and Jinghong Chen looked at 21 studies and found that, on balance, use of probiotics to promote healthy gut bacteria was typically correlated with reduced anxiety. Not all of the studies found this, but a significant number did; enough that I want to do more digging into the details to find out if suitable probiotics are actually available (and within my budget). Medication for mental illness is nearly always a trade-off; the one which helped me most still caused some issues with appetite, memory and fatigue. Being able to help regulate mood using probiotics sounds amazing.

But, you might ask, how the hell does this work?

The thing is, the brain and the gut are very closely linked. This is referred to as the “gut-brain axis”, meaning that there is complex biochemical signalling going on not just from the brain to the gut, but also from the gut to the brain, and from the gut microbiome to the brain. Some scientists have referred to the gut microbiome as a “neglected endocrine organ”, suggesting involvement comparable to hormones produced by the human hypothalamus, pituitary gland and so on. Imbalance in your gut flora can lead to inflammation and autoimmune issues — which can also affect the brain. Well-regulated gut bacteria help with the production of key nutrients and vitamins which can help to regulate brain function.

All in all, it sounds so easy — maybe too easy, for those of us who are used to the choice between being frightened to get out of bed or the side effects of medication. But it seems to have some genuine evidence supporting it, and it may be a worthwhile intervention instead of or as an adjunct to more traditional therapies and medications.

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