The Verge has an interesting article discussing the link between our gut bacteria and mental health. It starts with the story of parents seeking help for their teenage daughter, Mary, who was struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and ADHD. Having tried “a litany of psychotropic medications,” the parents consulted Boston-area psychiatrist James Greenblatt. After learning that Mary also had a history of digestive problems, Greenblatt prescribed high-dose probiotics, “the array of helpful bacteria that lives in our gut.” She also continued to work with medications and therapy. The article reports that upon starting the probiotics, “the change in Mary was nothing short of miraculous: within six months, her symptoms had greatly diminished. One year after the probiotic prescription, there was no sign that Mary had ever been ill.”
The bacteria in our bodies outnumber our own cells by a ratio of about 10 to 1. And scientists are more and more discovering that our bacterial buddies don’t just idly live in our bodies, but play a major role in our functioning. For example, in one study, “researchers transplanted microbes from one group of mice, which were characterized by timidity, into the guts of mice who tended to take more risks. What they observed was a complete personality shift: timid mice became outgoing, while outgoing mice became timid.”
Most of the bacteria that live in our gut are acquired during birth when we pass through our mother’s birth canal. But the foods we eat, antibiotics we take, and many other factors can modify our microbiome over time.
While we are learning more about the the importance of the bacteria in our bodies, we are still at a primitive, early stage in applying this knowledge therapeutically. In my medical practice, I have never encountered such a straightforward success story with probiotics as is described in The Verge article. How to replete the gut with the right balance of bacteria to promote optimal health is still being worked out. In the meantime, I don’t hesitate to recommend a trial of probiotics to patients with with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other health issues that might be helped with better bacteria.
For another interesting article on our gut bacteria, see this New York Times article.