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What is the role of the gut microbiome in mental health?

An Australian research team investigated evidence linking the gut microbiome with specific psychiatric disorders and age-related cognitive impairment.

The human body is host to a vast number of diverse microbes that perform important and beneficial functions. Evidence is now emerging that communication between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system is both bidirectional and influenced, in part, by the gut microbiome.

Our understanding of microbial communities and their importance to many aspects of human physiology and mental health has grown dramatically in recent years. For example, animals raised in a germ-free environment exhibit substantially altered immune and metabolic function. In addition, there seems to be a correlation between gastrointestinal problems and psychiatric illnesses. For example, mood disorders affect more than half of all patients with irritable bowel syndrome.

In April of 2016, an Australian team of researchers discussed the role of gut microbiomes in shaping neurological function and the mechanisms by which it can contribute to mental illness. They published their results in Molecular Psychiatry.

The gut microbiome is shaped by genetic factors, as well as environmental ones such as diet or antibiotic exposure. Alcohol consumption, smoking habits, disrupted sleep patterns, and insulin resistance has also been shown to substantially affect microbiota composition.

Yet, there is also evidence that imbalances in the gut microbiome can affect an individual’s mental health. For example, anxiety disorders, depression, and dementia may be linked to microbial imbalances. Moreover, gut microbiomes have a far broader impact because they play an important role in the metabolism of oral medications.

The mechanisms and implications of the link between gut microbiomes and health are not yet fully understood. Nonetheless, given the ease with which the microbiome can be altered, doing so may be a beneficial addition to the treatment regimen for a broad range of disorders.

Written by Debra A. Kellen, PhD

Reference: Rogers, G. B., Keating, D. J., Young, R. L., Wong, M. L., Licinio, J., & Wesselingh, S. (2016). From gut dysbiosis to altered brain function and mental illness: mechanisms and pathways. Molecular Psychiatry21(6), 738.

Debra Kellen PhD
Debra Kellen PhD
With undergraduate degrees in Neuroscience and Education from the University of Toronto, Debra began her career as a teacher. Nine years later, when she moved to Michigan, Debra earned a Ph.D. in Education Policy from the University of Michigan. Today, Debra organizes conferences and conducts workshops to provide training and support for educators and medical professionals on effective coaching, staff recruitment and training, and creating a culture of continuous improvement. She loves to read and enjoys the challenge of translating medical research into informative, easy-to-read articles. Debra spends her free time with her family, travelling, wandering through art fairs, and canoeing on the Huron River.

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