The study of microbiomes, such as gut bacteria, is a fascinating new look into how our health and wellbeing can be affected by the tiny passengers that live in our bodies. Much like the outside environment, our microorganisms need to find a healthy balance that creates a sustainable internal ecosystem. When there is an imbalance or disruption to this system, there can be a wide variety of consequences to our mental, physical, and emotional health. Since we know that addiction often has root causes that stem from imbalances like anxiety and depression, it begs the question: can/how do these microbiomes affect the varying stages of addiction and recovery?
To best understand how these microorganisms can affect our health and wellbeing, we must first understand their nature. A microbiome is a community of microorganisms (bacteria, archaea, fungi, viruses, etc.) that inhabit a particular organism or ecosystem.Where can you find these microscopic communities?
Almost every place on Earth has some type of microbiome community that is an integral part of the greater ecosystem.
Recent advances in science and medical technology have allowed us to more easily observe, track, test, and document these microorganisms. The results have been a revelation in the scientific and medical communities, helping us to further unlock some of our body’s hidden mechanisms. Instead of just researching a single microorganism, we can now better research and understand how these tiny players systematically affect nearly every aspect of our inner and outer world.
Our human microbiome is a combination of trillions of microbes living inside and outside of our bodies. There are over one thousand different bacterial species that live in our mouth, gut, skin, etc. These microorganisms and the genes they express, combine to make us a “superorganism”, meaning that we are composed of both human and microbial cells. It’s estimated that one person’s microbiome may include as many as 8,000,000 genes in addition to the 20,000 to 25,000 that our genome is estimated to contain.(1)
While we know there is a strong connection between depression and addiction, we can go even further to discover some of the physiological causes of depression. By understanding these connections, we can help to prevent/treat depression and addiction.A 2017 research study(2) by Pinto-Sanchez and colleagues explored the impact of a specific microbiome in regards to anxiety and depression. To better understand the connection, they researched Bifidobacterium longum (BL), a microaerotolerant anaerobe that is thought to be among the first microorganism colonizers of the human gastrointestinal tract. This anaerobe is considered an essential part of human gut flora due to its production of lactic acid. A healthy balance of lactic acid is believed to help prevent the growth of pathogenic organisms.
Using a controlled study, subjects with IBS, with concurrent anxiety and/or depression, were given a BL probiotic that would help to restore the missing microorganisms and increase the production of lactic acid. After 10 weeks of treatment, researchers were able to note a statistically significant reduction of depression.
In a 2020 study(3), scientists found evidence that gut microbiome health can influence the pattern of activation in a rat's brain during opioid addiction and withdrawal.
Researchers were interested in seeing how the use of antibiotics could be connected to drug abuse and addiction. Antibiotics help to protect us from harmful bacteria, however, these medications can also damage the symbiotic bacteria that live in our bodies.Some of the test rats were given antibiotics that depleted 80% of their gut microbes. While all of the rats became dependent on the prescription opioid pain reliever oxycodone, it was when the researchers autopsied the rats’ brains that they found a breakthrough. The normal pattern of neuron pathing to different parts of the brain, during intoxication and withdrawal, was unsettled in the subjects that had been treated with antibiotics. Rats with damaged gut biomes had more active neurons in the areas of the brain that regulate stress and pain.Ultimately, the team was able to conclude that gut microbes alter the way the brain responds to drugs. These changes in brain patterns could ultimately affect our overall behavior. In this instance, researchers noted that the decrease in neurons, recruited in the central amygdala, could lead to fewer withdrawal symptoms, leading to a higher risk of drug abuse.
Since we are now beginning to understand the essential role that microbiomes play in our health and wellbeing, we have to ask ourselves how we can best protect and promote the symbiotic organisms that share our body and environment.Here are some things ways that we can improve our gut health:
If you would like to learn more about how microbiomes can impact your body or if you want to learn more ways to combat drug abuse and addiction, please reach out to our friendly and knowledgeable team. We can help get you on the path to healthy, sustainable recovery!