The Brain-Gut Connection: How Gut Bacteria May Treat Depression

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Published Apr 16, 2015

We humans have a second brain. Come to think of it, men have three. The second one, called our enteric nervous system, consists of some 100 million neurons that are embedded in the walls of the long tube of our gut, which starts at the esophagus and ends at the anus. It measures approximately nine meters long, deeper than most swimming pools.

As important as the neurons in the gut is the kind of bacteria found there. Our body is a dwelling place for about 100 trillion bacteria and other microbes, collectively known as our microbiome. They do many important things: break down our food, fight off infection, and boost our immune system. However, scientists are finding that they may do even more than that, and have an important role in our mental health. In fact, the burgeoning field of psychobiotics may prove to be a new treatment for those with chronic depression, and especially for those who suffer from gastrointestinal issues alongside depression and anxiety.

John F. Cryan, PhD, a neuropharmacologist and microbiome expert from the University College Cork in Ireland, is one of the scientists at the forefront of exploring the link between gut and brain health. He works closely with gastroenterologists, microbiologists, and psychiatrists to study the effects of gut bacteria on the brain. His studies on mice are fascinating, and show us how gut bacteria can alter the biochemistry of our brain (the one held up by our necks).

Dr. Cryan and his colleagues discovered that when mice are bred in sterile conditions — lacking of beneficial bacteria — they do not interact with other mice and behave with social awkwardness, much like I do at a PTA meeting. Also, when they disrupted the microbiome, the mice mimicked human anxiety, depression, and autism. Cut off the good stuff, and these guys aren’t happy.

Cryan began as a neuroscientist and studied mostly the brain; however, after seeing how patients with comorbid illnesses were being tossed from one specialist to another — gastroenterologists referring to psychiatrists and vice versa — he wanted to explore the link between our intestines and our noggin in order to improve healthcare. His studies provide the data to support new forms of treatment and encourage other neuroscientists to venture below the neck.

Sarkis Mazmanian, PhD, is another pioneer in this field. A microbiologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, he was recently interviewed for the journal Nature. “The field [of neuroscience] is going to another level of sophistication,” he said. “Hopefully this will shift this image that there’s too much commercial interest and data from too few labs.”

Dr. Mazmanian did his own study in 2013 that found mice with some features of autism had much lower levels of a common gut bacterium called Bacteroides fragilis than did normal mice. They were stressed, antisocial, and had the same gastrointestinal symptoms often found in autism. Interestingly enough, when the scientists fed the mice B. fragilis, they reversed their symptoms.

If you are skeptical of mice experiments, there’s also this. Many studies have indicated that (human) babies born by C-section have an increased risk for developing allergies, asthma, diabetes, and autism. That was the same as mice born of C-sections. But they also were more anxious and depressed. Why? They don’t receive the critical exposures to a mother’s vaginal microbes when they are born.

What does this mean in terms of treatment?

In one of Cryan’s studies, two varieties of Bifidobacterium produced by his lab were more effective than escitalopram (Lexapro) at treating anxious and depressed behavior in a lab mouse strain known for pathological anxiety.

I began taking a probiotic last year and I do think it has helped my mood. Like the lab mice, I feel more resilient. I think it’s especially important for people who have been on a lot of antibiotics in their past, as I was, or have recently had major surgery. Looking back, I think my appendix rupturing and the ensuing appendectomy affected my mental health more than I ever considered. The probiotic treatment has helped heal that.

The more I ask people about the link between their gastrointestinal problems and mood disruptions, the more convinced I am of how the two brains work together.

Continue the conversation on, the new depression community.

Article: This Is What Stress Physically Feels Like

Can we all just release a collective sigh over how annoying stress is?

Beyond the inconvenience of feeling stressed out, regular bouts of anxiety can seriously mess with your health. Persistant, daily stress can lead to increased risk of chronic diseases, heart problems and changes in the brain. Workplace stress also results in approximately $125 billion to $190 billion in U.S. healthcare costs each year.

A little stress is inevitable — and luckily there are ways to reduce it — so we can all take solace in the fact that we’re not alone in feeling this way. We asked our social community to explain what stress physically feels like for them and illustrated some of their responses. Although worrying is universal, the experience isn’t exactly one-size-fits-all.

“Like a huge knot in my stomach.” — Norine Stauske (via Facebook)

“It feels like being caught in a tsunami; the rolling of the wave keeps you from figuring out which direction to swim.” — Larissa Valkyrie (via Facebook)

“I feel like a shark bit me in the stomach.” — Edu Gonzalez (via Facebook)

“For me stress is like a hazy fog that is so thick it literally slows me down.” — Melissa Petitt (via Facebook)

“It feels like the walls are closing in. A vice grip on my body.” — Carol Smitherman-Marques (via Facebook)

“A volcanic mountain close to eruption [with] lots of pressure building up. Everything is amplified around me.” — Rhonda DeEtte Dostal (via Facebook)

“Stress feels like carrying around a mental cinderblock. You can hold it for a few minutes and not get tired (an actual cinderblock weighs 28 pounds) but if you carry it around for an hour it will fatigue you, carry it around for a day it will hurt you, continue to carry it long term and it can literally kill you.” — John Brubaker (via email)

“I feel like I am an Egyptian mummy wrapped all over and the pyramid is put on top of me.” — TC Bahar Ergun Tunc (via Facebook)

“It feels like a weight on my shoulders, gravity pulling me down and a sense of dread.” — Cherrie L. Page (via Facebook)

“Stress is like being hugged by a giant.” — Monica Mercedes Perez Jimenez 

Article: Lena Dunham Tackles The Stigma Of Mental Health…

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Posted: 04/13/2015 9:49 am EDT Updated: 3 hours ago

Lena Dunham shared a powerful “workout selfie” on Instagram yesterday. “To those struggling with anxiety, OCD, depression: I know it’s mad annoying when people tell you to exercise, and it took me about 16 medicated years to listen,” she wrote. “I’m glad I did. It ain’t about the ass, it’s about the brain.” There’s a lot to take from this selfie, beyond her “slim figure” and the fact that she is wearing a sports bra. Yet again, Dunham is working to combat the stigma surrounding mental health.

Dunham has been candid about her mental health in the past. “I have obsessive compulsive disorder and it started manifesting itself when I was five,” she said in an interview with The National in 2014. “It’s not like I had an opportunity to exist in a carefree way.”

In her book, Not That Kind of Girl, Dunham wrote openly about her experiences. “It’s hard enough to have a child, much less a child who demands to inspect our groceries and medicines for evidence that their protective seals have been tampered with,” she wrote. “I have only the vaguest memory of a life before fear. Every morning when I wake up there is one blissful second before I look around the room and remember my daily terrors.”

These efforts are not confined to interviews and personal essays (and/or selfies). Perhaps her most notable effort has been the nuanced description of OCD featured through her character Hannah on “Girls.”

In Season 2, Episode 9, Hannah’s symptoms flare up when she is stressed by a rapidly approaching deadline. She starts counting (for Hannah, performing activities in sets of eight combats harmful thoughts), eventually traumatizing her ear after applying this tactic to the use of a cotton swab. Instead of reducing her struggle to the all too familiar excessive hand-washing we usually see in pop culture as indicative of OCD, Lena rewards Hannah with a measured depiction of anguish in need of attention.

“Maybe any show that depicts mental illness has to come from a firsthand account in order to do it well,” Dr. Jeff Szymanski, Ph.D., wrote at Psychology Today following the episode. “Lena did a service not only to herself by letting the world ‘see’ what the struggle looks like, but to the entire OCD community at large by showing some of the pain, stigma, and struggle any person with mental health issues has to endure.”

There’s this idea of Lena Dunham as the pinnacle of “over-sharing,” an attention-seeker armed with TMI as a guerrilla tactic for publicity. Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti went so far as to criticize Not That Kind of Girl by saying Dunahm’s “willingness to shock” has the “unfortunate side effect of nullifying the idea that she has something important to say.” But when it comes to discussions of mental health, Dunham cannot be so easily dismissed.

Since information is the most important tool in battling the negative perceptions which categorize mental health, this kind of visibility makes it increasingly difficult for OCD to be dismissed based on fear of that which is different or unknown.

Dunham’s continued efforts to promote an accurate portrait of OCD, both as a celebrity and as an artist, are important regardless of whether or not you agree with her method of transmitting seemingly every bit of personal information for public consumption. Mental health is surrounded by a stigma that leads to a lack of empathy and discrimination. With every thoughtful, accurate image Dunham sends up on HBO or Instagram, she chips away at the shame and the misunderstanding. That’s the kind of over-sharing we can definitely get behind.

on a mission from god… not really

Sorry for the blog delay – I have been ferrying between doctor appointments and family members bouts of influenza. ugh. I also have surgery scheduled for this Thursday.

Please enjoy the elevator music (above) while my life is placed on hold, again.