Gut-Brain Connection & Mental Health and Addiction
Scientific research now suggests that the microbiota-gut-brain axis is involved in a variety of neurological and psychiatric conditions, such as depression & anxiety, addiction, bi-polar disorder, autism, and even Parkinson’s disease and stroke.
A healthy gut microbiome is full of beneficial bacteria that break down, assimilate, and absorb nutrients from the food you eat, which fuels the processes in your body. Gut microbes also have another purpose, which is to produce dopamine and serotonin, the “feel good” chemicals that help boost and regulate your mood. Approximately 90% of serotonin and 50% of dopamine are produced by the bacteria in your gut. There are approximately 400-600 million neurological brain-gut connections, which is why the gut is now called the “second brain”. Proper functioning of this system is essential for mental and physical health wellness and Corner Canyon is focused on correcting this for our clients and preparing them to continue taking care of themselves once they complete treatment.
An individual’s gut is comprised of about 500 million neurons. The nickname “second brain” has been associated with the gastrointestinal tract because it can function independently from the brain. It is one of the only areas of the body that has two-way communication. It communicates through the parasympathetic fibers of the vagus nerve and the sympathetic fibers of the prevertebral ganglia. This stream is known as the gut-brain axis, and it explains why people have “gut feelings”, “butterflies”, or other reactions in the stomach due to mental and emotional states.
The gut-brain axis is regulated by neurotransmitters, various hormones, immune system cytokines, and different organisms. The enteric (intestines) nervous system contributes to what goes on in the body. This system is comprised of 30 different neurotransmitters. As mentioned above, there is bacteria in the gut that produces more than 90% of the body’s serotonin and 50% of its dopamine. Factors like our level of anxiety, appetite, mood, emotions, learning, recollection, and inflammation in the body are all influenced by this area.
These are all factors that play a role in an individual’s addiction susceptibility and mental health. When external factors trigger different stresses, inflammation in the gut may arise. When this happens, the brain may react with symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental illness disorders.
In one study, scientists collected gut bacteria from a strain of mice who demonstrated anxious behavior and then transplanted these bacteria into another strain inclined to be calm. The result was that the calm animals appeared to become anxious.
In another study, scientists gave mice either the antidepressant Lexapro or bifidobacterium and then subjected them to a series of stressful situations, including a test which measured how long they continued to tread water in a tank of water with no way out (they were pulled out before they drowned). The microbe and the drug were both effective at increasing the animals’ perseverance and reducing levels of stress hormones.
In an interesting human study, scientists transferred gut bacteria taken from anxious humans into “germ-free” mice—which had been raised so their guts contained no bacteria at all. After the transplant, these animals also demonstrated signs of anxiety.
A well-known human study was done by Mayer, a UCLA researcher. He worked with 25 subjects, all healthy women, for 28 days. Half of them ate a cup of commercially available yogurt with live bacteria twice a day, while the others didn’t. Yogurt is a probiotic, meaning it contains live bacteria, in this case, strains of four species. Before and after the study, subjects were given brain scans to evaluate their responses to a series of images of facial expressions—happiness, sadness, calmness, anger, etc. The results, which were published in the journal Gastroenterology, in 2013, showed significant differences between the two groups; the yogurt eaters with probiotics reacted more calmly to the images than the control group.
In a 2018 study from a team at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Sheppard Pratt Health System researchers looked at 66 patients hospitalized for mania. These patients completed a clinical trial looking at the two most recommended types of probiotic bacteria (Bifidobacterium animalis subspecies lactis strain Bb12 and Lactobacillus rhamnosus strain GG and), in addition to a placebo group, which were added to treatment as usual for the clients in the study group.
After being followed for 6 months, the results were striking. Patients receiving the probiotic had a significantly decreased risk of being rehospitalized. About 73% in the placebo group were rehospitalized, compared with 24% of patients in the treatment group. In addition, individuals receiving the probiotic were rehospitalized for much shorter periods of time (2.8 vs 8.3 days).
Another part of this study that was interesting was that the researchers looked at a number of biomarkers to evaluate what’s called a neuroinflammatory index. They looked at a group of antigens to things like toxoplasmosis (one of the world’s most common parasites), and gliadin, a component of gluten, and the primary antigen leading to an inflammatory reaction in the small intestine. They stratified the group’s results and found that individuals with high neuroinflammatory markers who consumed the probiotic had a 90% reduced risk of being rehospitalized for mania.
In a study which was recently published in the journal PNAS, Bäckhed and his colleagues from Belgium and Sweden analyzed the intestinal bacteria of 60 alcoholics who used similar amounts of alcohol. After the participants had spent 19 days in addiction treatment programs it became apparent that there was a big difference in how well the participants recovered: their risk of relapse and sense of well-being was connected to their gut flora.
26 out of the 60 alcoholics were diagnosed with leaky gut syndrome (Faecalibacterium prausnitzii) and had a low amount of intestinal bacteria. Leaky gut syndrome is linked to diseases and conditions like Crohn’s disease, inflammation of the gut, food allergies, asthma, and arthritis. After 19 days without alcohol, the 26 test subjects still scored high on tests that measured anxiety, depression, and alcohol cravings. There was actually not much of a difference from before they went to rehab. As a side note, if these individuals continue with chronic alcohol ingestion, their risk of colon cancer increases. This is due to the conversion of bacteria in the colon and rectum. The bacteria forms into acetaldehyde, which is a carcinogen.
In comparison, the other 34 subjects with normal gut flora were recovering much more quickly, scoring low on anxiety, depression, and alcohol cravings. In fact, their scores decreased to levels similar to the control group who didn’t have a drinking problem. On the basis of these results, the scientists concluded that intestinal flora is connected to the likelihood of relapse after sobering up.
When your gut is healthy, the communication between your gut and brain will work properly. Enough serotonin is produced, essential nutrients are synthesized, and clients feel energized, calm, and experience an overall greater sense of well being.
Corner Canyon’s chef cooks healthy, delicious meals. Very few simple carbs are served, while whole grains, vegetables, lean protein, and fruit and salads, with homemade dressings, comprise most of the food served. Most clients lose some weight, while significantly underweight clients gain weight, although these changes are not the purpose of the healthy model of eating we use except as they contribute to increased health and wellness. Clients are taught in psycho-education groups about the gut-brain connection and observe our chef preparing and cooking meals, while he explains what he is doing and why, so that they have increased ability to prepare food for themselves after leaving treatment.
We also conduct an intervention where we feed clients only simple carbs at one meal and then process with them how they feel after a typical fast food meal like that compared to the usual way we eat at Corner Canyon. Clients describe feeling lethargic and sleepy, unable to pay attention, and having symptoms of high blood sugar. Many clients will experience a decrease in healthiness after leaving treatment and not understand how critical healthy eating is in avoiding this decrease. Our goals in this process include educating them about how to stay healthy and help avoid the risk of relapse. We recently started “Cade’s Kitchen” where our chef encourages clients to practice food preparation in addition to learning about healthy food and the gut-brain connection.
Generally, when people think of mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety, we often associate the causes to conventional factors. These factors could include trauma, physical distress, emotional distress, genetic susceptibility, and much more. But oftentimes, individuals don’t associate these conditions with the function of the immune system and the health of the gut.
A person’s gut has over 500 different species that comprise about 100 trillion organisms. When we experience social, physical, and psychological stressors, our immune system is affected and the kinds of bacteria that live in our gut are as well. As a result, inflammatory species of bacteria grow and have an effect on the nerve receptors in the gut. These nerve receptors have a direct connection with the neurotransmitters in the brain. As mentioned above, research has validated the connection of these bacteria with the process of recovery from addiction and mental health conditions. Maintaining a nutrition-rich diet consisting of vegetables, fruits, and whole foods is one factor that is important to an individual’s battle with overcoming these conditions.
- Diet – A diet rich in whole foods, vegetables, and fruits helps cultivate a healthy gut environment. The high fiber content of these foods creates a structure that healthy bacteria can grow on, and include prebiotics. Adding fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, apple cider vinegar, kefir, Kombucha (has a trace amount of alcohol, however) and tempeh add helpful bacteria. The elimination of processed foods also keeps inflammation at bay.
- Supplements – Taking probiotics, specifically strands of good bacteria like bifidobacterium and lactobacillus, keep pathogenic bacteria low. When good bacteria are in place they interact with hormone levels, helping turn off cortisol and adrenaline which can cause long-term harm to the body.
- Relaxation – Emotions play a huge role in gut health. One’s ability to calmly attend to the stresses of life creates a peaceful body. Meditation, breath work and simply making time to relax can do a world of good for one’s overall well-being. Having a healthy gut biome contributes to this ability to relax
- Avoid Antibiotics – Whenever possible, and increase intake of probiotics if they are necessary.