The microbiome and the brain: how gut microflora can affect mental health

The microbiome and brain function and how gut microflora can affect mental health. The bidirectional relationship between the central nervous system and the gut microbiota, the so-called gut-brain axis, has attracted considerable interest in recent years. There is increasing evidence that the gut microbiota is associated with both gastrointestinal and extra-gastrointestinal diseases. Gut dysbiosis and inflammation have been linked to some mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression, which are common in today’s society.

In this article you will learn:

  • Gut microbiome: what is it?
  • Functions of the intestinal microbiome
  • Neurotransmitters and hormones
  • Intestinal microflora in depression

Brain microbiota, in other words, about the various connections and interactions between these two parts of our biology. “In the case of a change in our gut microbiota – what we call ‘dysbacteriosis’ – it can be linked to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety,” he notes.

Gut microbiome: what is it?

The microbiome and brain function

Gut microbiome: performs the following functions

  • Digestion
  • Synthesis of vitamin K, B5, B8 (biotin) and B9 (folic acid). It also produces B12, but it is not available to the body (it needs stomach acid to separate from proteins and bind to intrinsic factor to form a complex that can be absorbed in the small intestine).
  • Maintaining the integrity of the intestinal mucosa.
  • Intestinal absorption of iron, calcium and magnesium.
  • Regulation of amino acids such as tryptophan or glutamine.
  • Modulation of the immune system.
  • Lowering the level of glucose and cholesterol.
  • Energy exchange, regulation of lipogenesis and oxidation of fatty acids.
  • Synthesis of neurotransmitters.

The gut microbiota is directly connected to the brain through the gut, and there is ample evidence of its influence on human behavior. This connection is explained by the existence of many neural connections between them.

Microbiome: neurotransmitters and hormones

Part of the influence of intestinal microbiota on the brain is its ability to produce neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, GABA, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and cortisol) and amino acids (tryptophan), which are involved in the functioning of the brain. When the intestinal microbiota changes (dysbacteriosis), there is an imbalance in the release of these neurotransmitters, the work of the brain changes, and various pathologies appear.

It is important that GABA and serotonin, which are produced in the intestines, cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. However, short-chain fatty acids released by intestinal bacteria can do this and modulate the level of GABA in the central nervous system. In addition, tryptophan (precursor of serotonin), produced by intestinal bacteria, can also cross the blood-brain barrier.

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Microbiome: intestinal microflora in depression, mental state

The microbiome and brain function and how gut microflora can affect mental health.

According to a recently published study by a team from the University of Basel, bacteria can help treat depression. We are talking about the corresponding microbes that live in the human intestine. This may seem strange, since the treatment of this disease requires advanced psychological and pharmacological methods, and even with them it does not always give the desired results.

Of course, it is difficult to expect that bacteria will become a panacea for depression or other diseases, but it turns out that they have a great influence on the state of the psyche. Swiss researchers talk about the increasingly well-known so-called microbiome-gut-brain axis. Microbes living in the gastrointestinal tract affect the nervous system, among other things, releasing various substances. Researchers also point out, for example, that depressed people often suffer from gastrointestinal disorders.

These are bacteria, as well as viruses and fungi. The microbiome, in turn, means the totality of the genomes of the microbiota. If there are disturbances in the quantity, type and function of the microbiota, we are talking about dysbacteriosis. It was found that dysbacteriosis accompanies various health disorders — autoimmune diseases, allergies, obesity, as well as mental problems. However, it is still unknown what is the cause and what is the consequence

Experiments on mice have already shown that if sterile (bacteria-free) rodents are transplanted with the intestinal flora of people with depression, symptoms resembling the disease begin to appear in the animals.

In a new experiment involving humans, researchers from Basel tested the effect of probiotics on patients with depression. Volunteers took such drugs in addition to medication. Compared to subjects who received only medication, after 31 days the researchers noted a stronger improvement, at least temporarily, in the group that additionally took probiotics. Analysis of the intestinal contents, however, showed a greater number of lactic acid bacteria that produce lactic acid. Unfortunately, after the withdrawal of probiotics, the number of these bacteria returned to the original state after four weeks.

The researchers also analyzed the brain activity of the patients and noticed a clear correlation. Only in the group that additionally received probiotics, the reactions of the parts of the brain responsible for processing emotions were normal during tests with images of faces (frightened and neutral). Although the researchers do not know exactly how the bacteria worked, they believe that it is likely that the bacteria could be used to support therapy.

They also ask a number of questions. “New concepts raise many questions. Treating depression and anxiety disorders with antidepressants, do we really only act symptomatically? Or, perhaps, primarily causally, modulating the composition and function of the microbiome, affecting permeability, intestinal function, the immune system and, thus, inflammatory processes, which are now the main suspects in the pathogenesis of depressive and anxiety disorders?

Perhaps the currently known mechanisms of action of antidepressants are only the tip of the iceberg? As a rule, new ideas and plans generate great expectations. It is interesting whether we will “demand” too much from bacteria, which we have underestimated so far.”

For example, if we combine the use of constant positive pressure (a method of treating disease in the respiratory tract) with the right probiotics, we can reduce fatigue and the risk of developing additional diseases associated with OSA, which affect cognitive functions, memory, the cardiovascular system and metabolism. If we could achieve even one of these goals, it would be a big step forward in the treatment of OSA.”

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