Friends Lift Spirits and Help Us Persevere

Human friends help us, of course.  Today, I’m writing about our little friends.

The Human Microbiome Conference came and went and I stayed home.  Boo!

I did get invited to join the LinkedIn Group.  Yay!

I’m pretty excited to share some of the stuff I’m learning.  [tweetthis]My nerd brain is churning and a-buzz with awesome information about our guts and our brains.[/tweetthis] Maybe my gut is telling me something.

Our guts have over 1000 different species of microorganisms. Is it really that much of a leap to think our little buddies impact our mood and how we think?  Not for me.  I worked in a microbiology lab, culturing the organisms we wanted and keeping invaders out. I grew organisms in petri dishes and looked at them under the microscope.  I got to know these little guys, just by the look and smell of them.  Yup, we’ve got our old friend Pseudomonas. She smells like grapes.  Oh,Acinetobactor, I recognize your profile on MacConkey Agar.

Never mind, I digress.

Microorganisms, for the most part, need some of the same things as we do: food, water, air. And they get rid of waste, like we do.  Well, not the exactly same way we do, but microorganisms do have waste. The microorganisms in our guts can produce chemicals that get absorbed by us and impact our own chemistry.

“There’s been an explosion of interest in the connections between the microbiome and the brain,” says Emeran Mayer, a gastroenterologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Two particular bacteria, lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, seem to be linked with more serotonin in the body. A  study designed to increase stress kept mice swimming in water to near drowning.  Those with high levels of bifidobacterium and those given Lexapro (an antidepressant) showed the same decrease in stress hormones and increase in perseverance. (A bit mean, yes, deadly, no. All the mice got rescued before they drowned.) John Cryon, a neuroscientist from University of Cork, is developing a stress test for people, one that does not involve a near-drowning experience, to determine whether these microbes have the same stress lowering effects.

Autism is another area ripe with studies.  Seventy-five per cent of autistic people have some type of digestive problems: food allergies, gluten sensitivity, lactose intolerance, etc. It turns out people with autism have markedly different microbiomes than those without autism. Children with autism have fewer Bacteroides fragilis organisms. Mice with autistic behavior improve when B fragilis gets added to their guts from humans. As the mouse microbiome became richer in B fragilis, their behavior improved.

Just in case you think this is bunk science, the California Institute of Technology microbiologist Sarkis Mazmanian received the MacArthur Grant for his ground-breaking work on the microbiome and how it relates to autism and other neurodevelomental disorders. The last time I got this excited about a MacArthur Grant was when Donald Hopkins got the award for his work eradicating the Guinea worm disease. 

According to The Atlantic:

Scientists found that gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA, all of which play a key role in mood (many antidepressants increase levels of these same compounds). Certain organisms also affect how people metabolize these compounds, effectively regulating the amount that circulates in the blood and brain. Gut bacteria may also generate other neuroactive chemicals, including one called butyrate, that have been linked to reduced anxiety and depression. Cryan and others have also shown that some microbes can activate the vagus nerve, the main line of communication between the gut and the brain. In addition, the microbiome is intertwined with the immune system, which itself influences mood and behavior.

Since I started reading about the Human Microbiome Project, I began working on fostering my own flora.  No worries I’m still brushing my teeth, bathing, and washing my hair. I swore off disinfectant soaps and chlorine bleaches years ago. I’m staying away from soda and drinking more water. I’m drinking more milk and eating more yogurt,  good sources of lactobacillus.  It turns out that yogurt eaten twice a day with live cultures of bifidobacteriumstreptococcuslactococcus, and lactobacillus  reduces stress.  It’s a small study where 25 women were shown pictures to gauge their level of stress. The yogurt-eating women reacted with more calm.

One other quick bit of nerdiness: Galactooligosaccharide or GOS is a prebiotic.  GOS is non digestible food that a healthy human micro biome likes to munch on.  GOS is made from cows milk by enzymes.  In the USA it’s  found in baby formula. GOS helps in mineral absorption, helps prevent constipation and helps the good bacteria get established, which also boosts the immune system. GOS don’t produce a lot of gas like fructose does.  That’s a plus at my age, when laughing too hard might end in a toot from behind.

Snow Brand makes GOS ingredients for formula, as well as a line of Growing Up Milk products, oil, and non-hydrogenated spread. I have yet to try any of these products.  I can get 140 g of sweetened condensed milk on Amazon for $36.50. That’s less than half a can of Eagle Brand. Maybe I’ll just try eating yogurt twice a day for four weeks. I do love Noosa.

As scientists learn more about how the gut-brain microbial network operates, Cryan thinks it could be hacked to treat psychiatric disorders. “These bacteria could eventually be used the way we now use Prozac or Valium,” he says. And because these microbes have eons of experience modifying our brains, they are likely to be more precise and subtle than current pharmacological approaches, which could mean fewer side effects. “I think these microbes will have a real effect on how we treat these disorders,” Cryan says. “This is a whole new way to modulate brain function.”