Is your brain being hijacked by microbes?
Most of us don’t realize, but our minds are run (in part) by the microbes living in our body- not us.
While it can feel a little creepy to recognize this, it can be a huge weight off your chest to realize that the psychiatric, emotional, cognitive and neurological symptoms you are struggling so hard with ARE NOT YOUR FAULT. There are millions of microscopic species running the show behind the scene.
The microbiome (the ecosystem of organisms that live in our gut and the rest of our body) is intimately connected to our nervous system. Some people call this the gut-brain axis. In fact, a large part of our nervous system, called the enteric nervous system, is intertwined in the lining of our gut, and connected to our brain through the vagus nerve.
For example, if we have a large population of opportunistic microbes overgrown in our gut (this can be bacteria, fungus, parasites or viruses), that our immune system has not been able to keep in check, we will have higher levels of toxicity in our bodies. Many of these species actually create toxins as a part of their life cycle. “Detoxing” should therefore not just address exposure to external toxins, but ones that are coming from our own gut. These microbe produced toxins cause systemic inflammation. Systemic inflammation affects the whole body- including the brain!
Another issue that stems from the imbalance of microbes in our gut includes neurotransmitter production. Our gut microbiome helps us digest food, produce vitamins, hormones and neurotransmitters. If we have an imbalance in our microbiome, it may not be correctly producing necessary hormones and neurotransmitters that we need to feel good.
Lastly, an imbalance in the microbiome is functionally a chronic infection. If we have this type of low grade, chronic infection, our immune system can become dysregulated, creating distress signals that reach the brain.
Through these mechanisms, imbalance in the gut can manifest as emotional, psychiatric, neurological, and cognitive related symptoms! This is why, as a nervous system and mental health specialist, one of my primary methods of intervention is to rebalance the microbiome.
We have to remember that organisms are ultimately selfish. We see this on a larger scale in environmental ecosystems- if there is an imbalance in an ecosystem, often one species will get very overrun and deplete the entire system. This can happen in our body! Overgrown microbes will send behavioral signals to our brain in order to keep them alive and complete their life cycles. This may go against our (as humans!) best interest at times. And truly, many people with psychiatric and neurological disorders describe feeling “out of control” of their symptoms, behaviors and impulses.
On the other end of the spectrum, when people start balancing their microbiome, incredible shifts occur. People almost universally describe that their personality has changed- for the better! They feel like they have become more themselves. They no longer feel out of control- hijacked by another species needs.
One major indication of this microbiome hijack is intense cravings for high sugar foods. This can manifest as an overwhelming need to consume foods like pasta, bread, donuts, muffins, etc. It can also manifest as alcoholism, or intense cravings for alcoholic beverages.
Another indication of a microbiome hijack are sensory processing disorders, especially centered around textures and tastes of foods. Sometimes this is called being a “picky” or “finnicky” eater. Overgrown microbes can disrupt sensory cues, giving us a distaste for nourishing, healing foods such as meats, broths, eggs and vegetables, and giving us cravings for simple carbohydrates such as cereal, chips or pop tarts.
So what do we do? We have to help our overwhelmed immune system out by starving out these overgrown microbes. If we fight back through changes in our behavior and practices, eventually our immune system will be able to do the work it has been trying to do for a long time. Our food choices provide the most immediate feedback to the balance of the microbiome. Cutting out high sugar and starch food for at least 3-6 months consecutively, although sometimes it takes longer, 1-2 years, is an effective and powerful tool for rebalancing the microbiome.
Our microbiomes have been declining in health over the generations, due to poor nutrition, overly sterilized environments, pesticide and other toxic exposures, and the effects of chronic stress. We are reaching the point where we must prioritize the health of our microbiome above all us in order to ensure a thriving life for ourselves and our children!