Bugs and Drugs


Childhood Obesity News has been looking at how the microbiome can overrule the human will by secreting chemicals that act on our brains like psychotropic drugs. Among other effects, we suffer from delusions and make bad decisions, many of which result in disordered eating.

The microbiome is suspected of having something to do with anxiety, depression, autism, hyperactivity, and other mind- and behavior-related problems. Relative to the entire body, the brain and the gut might seem very far apart, but they share a highly effective communication system and keep a close eye on each other.

Peter Andrey Smith wrote this about the discoveries of neuroscientist John Cryan:

Somehow […] micro-organisms in the gut tickle a sensory nerve ending in the fingerlike protrusion lining the intestine and carry that electrical impulse up the vagus nerve and into the deep-brain structures thought to be responsible for elemental emotions like anxiety.

In the journal Biological Psychiatry, Cryan and co-author Ted Dinan published a paper in which they used the term “psychobiotics” to describe the microbes that apparently run large segments of our lives. Then, Texas Tech University’s Mark Lyte published in Bioessays a paper suggesting that “probiotic bacteria could be tailored to treat specific psychological diseases.”

Autism has long been theoretically linked with intestinal permeability. Children diagnosed with autism, and treated with anti-some-bacterial regimes and restrictive diets, have shown improvement. Overall, this is an exciting prospect because it looks as if remodeling the microbiome is a lot easier than, for instance, fixing genes.

Carol Curtin, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, very much regrets the widespread tendency to focus on the behavioral aspects of autism, and ignore the physical side. She says:

The vast majority of children with autism have sleep issues or gastrointestinal problems, both of which can contribute to weight issues. Many take drugs for epilepsy, anxiety or depression that can also cause them to pack on pounds. And weight gain is a common side effect of antipsychotics such as risperidone and aripiprazole, the only medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating issues related to autism. In addition, some children with autism have a genetic susceptibility to obesity.

Science continues to chip away at the problem of anti-psychotic meds. At the University of Iowa, work was done on risperidone, a “second generation antipsychotic that is known to induce significant weight gain.” Researchers showed that the drug changed microbiota composition in laboratory rodents, who gained Firmicutes and lost Bacteriodetes. It didn’t prove anything causative, but certainly demonstrated a connection.

One study at a time, the picture is forming. Autism is associated with inflammation, which messes with the metabolism. Then comes immune dysregulation and more inflammation, and more weight gain, which increases inflammation, and the silent partner also associated with all these factors is — you guessed it — the microbiome.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Can the Bacteria in Your Gut Explain Your Mood?,” NYTimes.com, 06/23/15
Source: “Weighing up autism’s obesity crisis,” SpectrumNews.org, 01/24/18
Source: “The microbiome plays a role in antipsychotic-mediated weight gain,” MicrobiomeInstitute.org, 10/30/15
Photo credit: ralf.st on Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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