The Role of the Microbiome in Addiction

"Ultrasound Image of My Large Intestine"

“Ultrasound Image of My Large Intestine”

What is the role of the microbiome in addiction? Nobody knows for sure, but mounting evidence indicates that the gut plays a large part in the body’s reaction to addictive substances. The question is worth asking. Tens of thousands of bacterial species inhabit our intestinal tracts.

They are being intensely investigated, and many discoveries suggest that these bugs can do a vast number of things. Sure, they help us digest food. Some of them regulate fat storage in the body. All of them have their preferences regarding nourishment and environment, and if they are displeased, they can make it known in ways that we find unpleasant.

Metabolism, obesity, gene activity, food preferences, neural pathways, the brain—all of these phenomena are interrelated in a complicated pattern of reciprocal influence and commutual cause and effect.

Nature continues to drop tantalizing hints that an overarching Unified Field Theory might embrace all these things. It is even possible that our gut flora dictate whether or not we are prone to addiction. We’ve already seen a round-about link. For instance, Candida (which lives in our gut, among other bodily sites) can cause Leaky Gut Syndrome, which in turn has been linked to a great many autoimmune conditions. People suffering from these painful disorders often self-medicate with opiates or other analgesics, leading to addiction.

A new book by neurologist David Perlmutter, Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain–for Life, which journalist Wendy Leung describes as containing “alluring tips on how to achieve neurological wellness through dietary changes and probiotic enemas.” Could this healing and protection of the brain include repairing whatever goes wrong up there to cause addiction?

Michael Pollen reminds us that the microbiome manufactures amino acids, short-chain fatty acids, neurotransmitters, enzymes, and even some vitamins. It constantly sends out signaling molecules that “talk to, and influence, the immune and the metabolic systems.” He goes on to say:

Some of these compounds may play a role in regulating our stress levels and even temperament: when gut microbes from easygoing, adventurous mice are transplanted into the guts of anxious and timid mice, they become more adventurous.

A Microbiome Thought Experiment

Here is a thought experiment: say that a certain type of microorganism prefers for its host to be fat, and has the ability to actively promote the growth of fat. Of course its ambition would be to colonize the nearest human digestive system. What if the proprietor of that digestive system has a gene that can either welcome the microorganism or reject it? That gene is the landlord who either allows the prospective tenant to sign a lease or sends the poor beggar on its way.

But how does the landlord decide whether to be generous or hard-hearted to a microbe? What switches on that gene? What if it turned out that the enabler of that gene is some characteristic of high fructose corn syrup, or monosodium glutamate, or one of any number of possible molecular presences? What if all addiction lives in the gut, ruled over by members of some of the thousands of species of bacteria that make their homes there?

What if addiction itself could be cured by the administration of prebiotics? Scenarios seem possible in which several different approaches to childhood obesity could all be used to ensure that no child faces the misery of addiction to overeating. What if there is a universal field theory that reconciles various schools of thought related to obesity?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Say hello to your little friends: Making sense of gut bacteria,”, 06/07/15
Source: “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs,”, 05/15/13
Image by miguel

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