Listen to Your Gut: The Microbiome Might Be Your Disease’s Foundation

Growing evidence supports the idea that the gut microbiome is the foundation of most illness and disease. A bacterial imbalance or pathogen in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract can lead to irritation and inflammation, increasing the risk for leaky gut and inflammation in other body systems. Not good.

Recent studies suggest that gut microbiota influence communication between the GI tract’s very own nervous system— the enteric nervous system (ENS)— and central nervous system. The ENS is commonly referred to as the “brain in your gut” which communicates back and forth with the brain in your skull. To overcome physiological stressors, dysbiosis, and to promote an overall healthy gut, the enteric nervous system fires signals to the brain for support from the rest of the body by means of the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. It is when these gut-brain and brain-gut interactions are prompted too often and subsequently put into overdrive when problems occur, specifically in the brain. More simply, a healthy, diverse, and balanced gut is an important factor for a normal, healthy brain. However, an impaired microbiota is believed to increase the risk of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, and even neurodegeneration. It is not yet known whether the bacterial imbalance is the source or outcome of these disorders.

Dr. Michael Zasloff conducts research on the gut-brain axis where he targets the enteric nervous system to potentially treat several neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, autism, and depression. Zasloff and his colleagues hypothesize that neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s do not first manifest in the brain, but rather in the intestines. This may explain why most Parkinson’s patients experience constipation or other gastrointestinal symptoms in the early stages of the illness.

Research shows that a protein called alpha synuclein accumulates in the second brain in the gut of Parkinson’s patients before traveling to the brain in the head. Zasloff believes alpha synuclein acts as a protective substance to defend the neurons when an infection or bacterial imbalance is detected. When the alpha synuclein is trafficked to the brain, it is in a sense alarming neighboring nerve cells of the current state in the GI tract. As can be predicted, when the intestine’s immune system is constantly activated, alpha synuclein accumulates in the brain and consequently triggers neuronal apoptosis. These toxic aggregates are the pathological hallmark of Parkinson’s disease.

Along with neurodegenerative diseases, data also supports the influence of impaired microbiota in neuropsychological disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, and attention deficit disorder (ADHD). Everyone’s gut bacterial composition is unique like a fingerprint, primarily because it is influenced by many factors such as chronic stress, diet, long-term antibiotic use, alcoholism, and genetics. In fact, a recent study found that a previously dominant strain of bacterium in infants is disappearing from the Western world, most likely a consequence of the rise in antibiotic use, cesarean births, and formula versus breast milk feeding. In effect, the ways of the modern world may be harming our mini-ecosystem of microorganisms and playing a role in the upsurge of mental illness. Additional testing in humans is needed to confirm the implications of the mind-gut link; however, a future where we target the intestines to treat a wide range of mental disorders is not a far-fetched notion.

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Elizabeth Arruda

Is a contributor to The Almost Doctor’s Channel.