Where Does Addiction Start?

Twins Eating Ice Cream BarsAs Dr. Dale Archer reminds us in Psychology Today, the human gut is sometimes referred to as the “second brain.” It contains more than 100 million neurons, he says, “and many contain the exact same neurotransmitters as the brain.” The vagus nerve, which connects gut and brain, forms such a close and direct link that depression can be treated with the implantation of an electrode in the nerve. The 100 trillion microorganisms that live in the gut form a constituency whose votes wield a lot of power. Dr. Archer says:

Recent scientific studies indicate that gut bacteria may play a pivotal role in brain chemistry and mental health. More specifically, the right type of “healthy bacteria” in your gut may treat/prevent depression and anxiety.

To give just one example, it has been shown that an imbalanced microbiome is very likely the cause of inflammatory bowel disease, which is characterized by pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and several other unpleasant symptoms. If the resident microbiota can do all that to the body, imagine what they can do to the mind. For some in the medical profession, the next logical step is to propose that fecal transplants, as a way of introducing a better quality of bacteria, might help not only the obese, but the depressed and—at this point, who knows?—maybe even the addicted.

Different Reactions to Food

At a party, Jill stops by the snack table to gather a handful of chips, and that’s it for the night. Jack makes a beeline for the kitchen to find a full party-size bag of chips, and hides in a closet to devour every last salty crumb. What is the difference between them? Is it that Jill has willpower and Jack has none? Is it that Jack is emotionally crippled by stress, while Jill has been to therapy to learn how to cope? Is it possible that, in a previous lifetime, Jack was a starving beggar, so in this incarnation, he can’t help eating everything in sight?

When two people have such different reactions to the same food, what is going on? Does one have Mediterranean ancestry and the other Scandinavian? Is it that Jill never eats after 7 p.m. while Jack is a round-the-clock snack fiend? Is it because Jill savors and Jack gobbles? Is it that Jack has an addictive personality but Jill doesn’t? The number of pounds a person carries might certainly be impacted by any or all of these things.

But then it gets complicated, because two people with the exact same hereditary characteristics can have wildly different reactions to food. When Dr. Jeffrey Gordon and his team wanted microbes to implant in lab mice, they obtained intestinal fauna from pairs of human twins where one was normal weight and one was fat. Except for their microbiomes, everything else about them was the same— they were identical twins!

One reason why addiction is so hard to beat is that it’s part physical and part psychological. Which area of the body encompasses both? The part that’s not even part of us—the kingdom of assorted bacteria that live inside us. The cumulative effect of their communal influence has been likened to that of an extra organ. Those bugs mean business, and when their aims differ from ours, they tend to win. Is it possible that the so-called “addictive personality” originates not in the mind but in the intestines?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Gut Bacteria Transplant: A New Treatment for Anxiety?,” PsychologyToday.com, 09/24/13
Image by Donnie Ray Jones

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