It's all in your Gut... Curing PTSD with Microbiomes!?


Could bacteria in your gut be used to cure or prevent neurological conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder (PSTD), anxiety or even depression? It sounds far fetched and almost dissonant, and brings to a swarm of cliquey nichey people who worship the likes of the humble Yakult bottle, or swear by vegan approved, triple distilled, quadruple fermented kale crisps blessed by the holy ghost and plated in edible gold leaf. But there is growing research that is experimenting with this very concept. Not the concept of gold blessed kale, but with the idea of utilising the gut’s own bacteria to seize back power over the body and the brain… restoring psychological harmony and eclipsing long standing symptoms of night terrors, flashbacks and an ever-palpitating heart.

So to whom do we thank this novel research? Dr John Bienenstock and Dr Paul Forsythe both work together at the Brain Body Institute at McMaster University located in the maple dusted land of Ontario Canada, and are heavily invested in intestinal bacteria and what effect they could play when combined in various ways to alter and better the human brain and mood spectrum.

This form of research could be an extremely important step forward in the art of treating those suffering post traumatic stress disorder, a psychiatric condition whereby the individual experiences intense flashbacks, delusions, sometimes even hallucinations and genuine physiological responses to a trauma or event that is no longer an immediate threat. No psychiatrist can officially declare to us how or why the brains neuroconnectivity seems to misfire and be unable to interpret and process past events that have ‘scarred’ us, but for those living with the condition, it can be debilitating beyond belief. In fact, it is estimated that about 8 million people have PTSD and 1 in 13 people will develop symptoms of PTSD at some point in their life. Because this is a spectrum disorder, the severity fluctuates depending on the person, the exact trauma in question, and how much therapy they have indeed received. What’s more alarming is that due to the lack of neurological understanding, the duration of PTSD and its affect on the person is equally as variable as the symptoms presented by the condition itself.

PTSD presently is treated with a combination of therapeutic approaches, as everyone is so different and naturally responds with altering features. One thing is certain however: when PTSD is not treated, it typically gets worse. It’s common for people to assume that with the art of repression and suppression, we can swiftly brush trauma under the carpet, or stuff it under the pillow of a sofa like a long forgotten penny. But PTSD lingers and grows, much like a bear in hibernation. A therapist or doctor typically talks to you utilising a form of therapy known as Trauma focused Psychotherapies. Ranging from 50 to 90 minutes, the trauma focused approach will engage the sufferer to open up and face the memory head on, rather than erase it. One method if PE (Prolonged Exposure Therapy), which is a way that the individual can be exposed to the thoughts, the feelings and situations you have long been avoiding. This in theory is meant to help you get more control of the monster under the bed and grip harness over the pains you’ve been experiencing. Two other commonly approached methods are CPT (Cognitive Processing Therapy) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). In CPT, You’ll talk with your therapist and fill out worksheets about the negative thoughts and beliefs that are upsetting you. Then your therapist will help you challenge those thoughts and think about your trauma in a way that’s less

upsetting. CPT helps you learn to identify and change these thoughts. Changing how you think about the trauma can help change how you feel. As for EMDR, a relatively novel form of therapy, the therapist will ask you to choose a memory from the trauma and identify the negative thoughts, emotions, and feelings in your body that go with it. During EMDR therapy sessions, you relive traumatic or triggering experiences in brief doses while the therapist directs your eye movements. EMDR is thought to be effective because recalling distressing events is often less emotionally upsetting when your attention is diverted. This allows you to be exposed to the memories or thoughts without having a strong psychological response. Over time, this technique is believed to lessen the impact that the memories or thoughts have on you.

So, now that we have a list of existing therapies for EMDR… let us revert back to the whacky concept of using the guts bacterium to treat and potentially cure the PTSD.

The trillions of microbes in the intestinal tract, collectively known as the gut microbiome, profoundly impact human biology--digesting food, regulating the immune system and even transmitting signals to the brain that alter mood and behaviour. ONR is supporting research that's anticipated to increase warfighters' mental and physical resilience in situations involving dietary changes, sleep loss or disrupted circadian rhythms from shifting time zones or living in submarines. Through research on laboratory mice, Bienenstock and Forsythe have shown that gut bacteria seriously affect mood and demeanour. They also were able to control the moods of anxious mice by feeding them healthy microbes from fecal material collected from calm mice. Bienenstock and Forsythe used a "social defeat" scenario in which smaller mice were exposed to larger, more aggressive ones for a couple of minutes daily for 10 consecutive days. The smaller mice showed signs of heightened anxiety and stress--nervous shaking, diminished appetite and less social interaction with other mice. The researchers then collected fecal samples from the stressed mice and compared them to those from calm mice. What was ultimately found was that an imbalance in the gut microbiota produced a pool of significantly more stressed mice. There was less diversity in the types of bacteria present.

The gut and bowels are a very complex ecology. The less diversity, the greater disruption to the body. Bienenstock and Forsythe then fed the stressed mice the same probiotics (live bacteria) found in the calm mice and examined the new fecal samples. Through magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), a non-invasive analytical technique using powerful MRI technology, they also studied changes in brain chemistry. This lead to further discoveries unveiling that not only did the behaviour of the mice improve dramatically with the probiotic treatment, but it continued to get better for several weeks afterward. Also, the MRS technology enabled us to see certain chemical biomarkers in the brain when the mice were stressed and when they were taking the probiotics. Both researchers said stress biomarkers could potentially indicate if someone is suffering from PTSD or risks developing it, allowing for treatment or prevention with probiotics and antibiotics.

What we can expect next in this form of research is more experiments involving fecal transplants from calm mice to stressed mice. They also hope to secure funding to conduct clinical trials to administer probiotics to human volunteers and use MRS to monitor brain reactions to different stress levels. Gut microbiology is part of ONR's program in warfighter performance. ONR also is looking at the use of synthetic biology to enhance the gut microbiome. Synthetic biology creates or re-engineers microbes or other organisms to perform specific tasks like improving health and physical performance. The field was identified as a top ONR priority because of its potential far-ranging impact on warfighter performance and fleet capabilities.


War veterans aside, PTSD impacts many people in modern society who have been exposed to traumatic events, with everything ranging from sexual abuse to witnessing public acts of terrorism. If something as simply as harvesting and genetically working our own gut microbiomes and cultures could help in restoring neurological calm, the future is indeed served sunny side up.


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