Your Brain in Your Gut
Article: "The Future of Psychobiotics" by Kirstin Weir. In Monitor on Psychology, December 2018.
Scientists across many disciplines have become increasingly interested in the microbiome in the gut over the last 10 years or so. And for good reason.
What is the microbiome?
The microbiome is the collection and interconnection of the trillions of microbes in the GI tract (stomach, small and large intestine, etc.). It turns out that your GI tract is not just for digesting food, but it supports and influences functioning in ways far beyond what we expected even a couple decades ago. Experts often compare the inside of the GI tract to that of a rainforest-and incredibly complex system of interdependent parts which contribute to the health or illness of the organism.
What are psychobiotics?
Perhaps you have heard of probiotics? Several food companies have done a fair job marketing these small drinks and other supplements that are supposed to "aid digestion." I remember seeing these for the first time in Japan in the 90s. We have known about the microbiome (i.e., that our gut is full of helpful microbes) for some time and have a lot of evidence that what we ingest affects our microbiome, but we are just now learning the extent to which we can influence our functioning based on manipulation of this microbiome. Psychobiotics is the proposed method for manipulation of our microbiome to influence mental and cognitive health.
Why should I care?
The bottom line is that there is mounting evidence to suggest that what we eat could make us more stress tolerant, less susceptible to mood imbalance (i.e., depression) or more cognitively resilient. Of course we "eat" pills that have anti-depressant affects and do sudoku puzzles (which, by the way, do not actually enhance cognitive health like we hoped they would), but what scientists are proposing here is a much less invasive way to improve mood, preserve cognitive functioning, and promote physical health overall. And, it requires no prescription or even a trip to the doctor. It's at the supermarket.
The article points out that there is no current psychobiotic prescription yet, but a "high-fiber, low-sugar, mostly plant-based diet can benefit patients in body and in mind." It would make sense that someone looking for a low-risk chance to improve mood and cognitive functioning would start by eating in a way that experts have been recommending for a very long time.
To my clients and people who look to me for advice I have no problems recommending further investigation in this matter. There is a growing amount of research-based resources, including books, articles, and videos, on the issue of the microbiome. I think what we are going to see is more specific discussion of how psychobiotics influence mental and cognitive health in the coming months and years. Already a Google search reveals deals on Amazon and a host of research and commentary, so keep an eye on this trend.