How your microbiome affects your brain health
Have you heard of Long Covid? I’ve been dealing with it now for over a year and a half. Essentially, my body doesn’t work right anymore. I suffer chronic headaches and a persistent sore throat, and if my heart rate goes above 120 bpm, I feel like I have the flu for several days. It isn't much fun.
Lots of theories abound as to what causes Long Covid, but I’m convinced it’s an autoimmune disorder. In other words, my immune system was reprogrammed by the virus, and now it isn’t functioning properly. It continues to attack my body even though the virus has probably been cleared by now. But curing an autoimmune disease, which I believe to be possible, requires considerable time, trial-and-error, and luck.
It’s eerily similar to the Crohn’s disease I was diagnosed with 25 years ago. At that time, I wasn’t dealing with my current symptoms; instead, I was suffering chronic and excruciating abdominal pain. That pain started about two months after recovering from a month-long battle with the Epstein-Barr virus. I used to think that strong antibiotics caused my gastrointestinal trouble. Now, I’m wondering if it might have been caused by the virus itself.
After several years, I cured my Crohn’s with a nutritional approach, cutting all gluten, sucrose, and lactose from my diet. I’ve been following that regimen for over 25 years now. The theory was that my microbiome—all of the bacteria lining my digestive system—was out-of-whack. By eliminating certain foods, I could encourage specific beneficial bacteria to thrive while killing off the bad bugs. It worked, and after a few years I was pain-free again.
Then Covid came along. My first symptoms of this new virus were definitely gut-related, and the labored breathing didn’t start for a week. Even then, I only had one rough night where my blood oxygen levels fell below 95. But I never recovered, and the past eighteen months have been, as I mentioned earlier, not so great.
“Hello darkness, my old friend." -- Simon and Garfunkle
For about a year, I’ve been approaching Long Covid in the same way as Crohn’s—by focusing on the microbiome. Early on, I went on an elemental diet, hoping to do a quick intestinal reset. An elemental diet is one where you don’t eat any solid food for three weeks. Instead, you drink a formula of essential proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that digests quickly and easily in the small intestine. I then began following an even stricter diet, eliminating specific fruits and vegetables that were high in lectins, a type of plant-based poison that, in high doses, can cause certain types of autoimmune problems.
But I haven’t cracked it yet; I'm still suffering. I have spent much of my free time in the past year reading about various dietary approaches to addressing autoimmune conditions and shifting the microbiome. I never realized how much the body relies on the digestive system. Over 70% of neurotransmitters are actually produced by the gut, and most of the immune system is regulated by chemicals created in it. I find this both amazing and scary, given that current science knows so little about the complicated interactions that occur within our digestive track.
“Oh, it's complicated!" -- Sing Street
All this research has me thinking a lot about mental health, and how our diets play such an important role in the healthy functioning of our brains. One need only search the term “gut-brain-axis” and countless articles and scientific studies emerge that link various types of bacteria to neurotransmitter levels and other mood or anxiety-related chemicals. One fascinating study links a specific soil-based bacterium to a reduction in stress levels and could be a future treatment for afflictions like PTSD.
Given my experience with severe mental illness, it's hard to believe that all brain diseases could be resolved through an altered microbiome. Still, it does seem that gut health could play a major role in overall mood, including things like depression and anxiety. I predict that in the future, microbiome maps will be as common as complete blood counts are today, and psychiatrists will use them as one more tool to help diagnose and effectively treat their patients.
Approaches like this are already being discussed by mental health researchers. “Psychobiotics,” or the idea that supplements could be produced with brain-friendly microbes similar to probiotics, is becoming a more accepted near-term reality. According to Professor Christopher Lowry from the University of Colorado Boulder: