The Mental-Emotional Dots

Over the past few years researchers have zealously pursued knowledge about the microbiome. Many tantalizing clues tie our inner populations of bacteria and other creatures to all sorts of possibilities for avoiding and curing serious medical conditions including obesity and its many co-morbidities. As a picture is constructed, bit by bit, from seemingly unrelated discoveries, the situation is compared to a connect-the-dots game.

Why do people compulsively overeat? How does it compensate for the sorrows and disappointments of life? Is binge eating a behavioral addiction? How much of our behavior is actually dictated by the demands of the trillions of organisms that live inside us? When we order a pizza delivery at 11 PM, is it really the bugs who coerce us to pick up the phone?

Addiction is so complicated because it isn’t just physical. It isn’t only mental, either, or solely emotional. The constituent members of the microbiome resemble addiction, in that they don’t just operate on the physical plane, either. Gastrointestinal bacteria release metabolites into the blood that communicate with the nervous system, and a lot of evidence points to their ability to mess with our heads.

Microbiome studies challenge our preconceptions. Efforts to interpret their evidence take us to the edge of credulity. The microbiota seem able to influence both thought processes and emotions. Critters who can do that need to have a wary eye kept on them. They influence stress-related behaviors, and when they are out of balance and in disarray, they urge us to make bad decisions. The famous gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote:

Digestion, of all the bodily functions, is the one which exercises the greatest influence on the mental state of an individual. says the inhabitants of the GI tract

[…] can activate neural pathways and central nervous system signaling systems. Ongoing and future animal and clinical studies aimed at understanding the microbiota-gut-brain axis may provide novel approaches for prevention and treatment of mental illness, including anxiety and depression.

Billi Gordon, Ph.D., puts it like this:

If the signaling of informational substances is compromised in the body, the brain is affected. So, in summation, your mind is the sum of the wisdom of your neuropeptides, and other informational substances, under the advisement of your gut-bacteria.

Dr. Gordon indirectly (and probably unintentionally) points the finger of impending doom at a group with no cause for joy about advances in microbiome knowledge — the surgeons who operate on stomachs. Conversely, he mentions Dr. Emeran Myer, who “is looking at changes in the tummy bacteria in bariatric populations that could one day replace bariatric surgery with nutritional intervention.”

While it is true that a morbidly obese person might have psychological and emotional problems, maybe the cause and effect relationship is not what we have been assuming. Maybe when the bugs are in order, with the right proportions of the right species, the obesity is taken care of, and the related psychological and emotional problems melt away.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Gut–brain axis: how the microbiome influences anxiety and depression,”, 2013
Source: “Your Mind Does Not Care What Your Brain Thinks,”, 03/10/14
Photo credit: Thomas Quine via Visualhunt/CC BY

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