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A gut reaction to some current thinking on mental health

It’s amazing how a change in language can open up new perspectives. I had reason to reflect on this while listening to a recent programme on Radio 4 called The Second Genome. It was about microbes. I thought I knew a thing or two about them. I have the widely held understanding that we are home to a microbial population that is essential to our physical wellbeing. I guess I had a vague notion of its role in our mental wellbeing when bandying around phrases like ‘you are what you eat’.

I have a bit more of a professional experience of fighting the good fight against the more villainous bacteria that cause all sort of diseases ranging from the mildly irritating to the downright horrifying. I have been around as the foot came of the gas in relation to the design of new antibacterial medicines. The inevitable outcome of this was the growth in bacterial resistance to existing medicines leading to governments issuing warnings about future bacteria fuelled pandemics. Public Health England published a paper in November 2017 that estimated the number of deaths and the economic cost of not dealing with this now – the figures are truly alarming.

Bacteria have found themselves moved towards the villainy end of the hero/ villain spectrum, at least in my mind. Then I hear the word ‘microbiome’ on this Radio 4 programme. It means the unique combination of microbes that we each have within (and on) us. It was the first time I had heard the word, or at least the first time it had stuck. Just that word presented the possibility in my mind of there being the same opportunities with this microbiome as came to life when our human genome was sequenced. This was reinforced by the phrase ‘the second genome’ to describe the diversity of the microbial gene pool that we each carry. Suddenly there appeared to be an opportunity for microbes to move back towards a heroic role. This is perhaps not a surprise if you are thinking of physical wellbeing yet this programme was about how the gut, home to the majority of our microbes, might be influential over the brain to a degree that we were not aware of. Leading on from this is the possibility of completely new ways of treating brain centred diseases currently dealt with by medicines active on the brain processes or through talking therapies aiming to encourage new ways of thinking.

James Gallagher guided the listener through how microbes might be influential on mood, wellbeing and mental health. His interviewees presented the possibility that the sensations in our gut, caused by our microbes collective function or dysfunction, might be the precursor to changes in our brain function. My superficial thinking on this subject held the reverse to be true, and I don’t think I was alone!

This area of research has taken off since the discovery in Japan that mice bred in a completely sterile environment were more prone to stress than those grown in a normal microbe rich situation. More telling was that the stress level of a colony of sterile environment mice was reduced through introduction of a mouse from the regular community. Since then research has shown that the sterile mice have a more highly branched neural network in the amygdala, a centre in the brain which is responsible for much of our stress related responses, implying a greater sensitivity to stress.

More recent experiments have shown that brain imaging can be used to distinguish between two types of microbiome found in people differentiated by having either a protein or carbohydrate preference in their diet. Those with the latter where shown to be more emotionally reactive. You really are what you eat! There were some fascinating experiments showing a relationship between Parkinsons’ sufferers and their microbiome which you should listen to and read about as I cannot paraphrase them here. There has even been work to show stress patients treated with a particular bacteria have had their stress level reduced. This was evidenced by both their own view of how stressed they felt backed up with a measured reduction in their cortisol levels (cortisol being a hormone produced as part of our stress response).

Although it might be a while away there is a very real possibility that patients will have their microbiome assessed by a GP and be prescribed psychobiotics, another new word for me, to improve their mental health. It might be that bacteria will be an important part of our ability to deliver on the personalised medicine future envisioned by healthcare systems throughout the world.

As a development coach this is fascinating for me. My work is not therapeutic yet it does work at the level of supporting someone to think differently. The fact that someone’s thinking may be influenced by the bacteria they host just adds another level of complexity that is as exciting as it is bewildering. Perhaps I should conclude that something I know is critical to a coaching conversation is the language we use. For me, the word ‘microbiome’ unlocked this whole new world for me. Great radio, fascinating learning and exciting thinking.

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