Are you sick of hearing about good bacteria yet? I’m not. I’m loving the near deluge of literature decimating germ theory and forcing us to revisit all existing medical science.
To appreciate the decentering of The Human in the scheme of greater planetary biology, you must take in the scope of what a lowly bacteria is capable of accomplishing. From synthesizing nutrients, digesting food (including gluten!), eliminating modern chemicals, supporting immune signaling, to regulating endocrine function, and brain chemistry, it’s no surprise that we have recently discovered that bacteria communicate in the same electrical way that brain cells do.
It is not, and can never be again, us versus them. The mandate for harmonious coexistence compels us to rethink the friendly fire we engage in through surgical births, antibiotics, vaccines, and excessive sanitization. Because they don’t seem to hold a grudge, however, we can still clean up the shrapnel, and sometimes easily, in the space of one to two months.
If depression is, at least some of the time, a natural response to an unnatural environment, or a manifestation of evolutionary mismatch, then recruiting therapeutic bacteria may be a powerful way to send a signal of safety. As a clinician who demands a lot of her patients with regard to lifestyle change from diet to meditation to environmental and psychological detox, I am awed by a study that exacts results with a simple probiotic.
A small sized study, it was nonetheless powered to offer an answer to the question, can probiotics treat mood? Titled Clinical and metabolic response to probiotic administration in patients with major depressive disorder: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. An eight-week trial of 40 patients diagnosed with Major Depression, they were split up and randomized to receive Lactobacillus acidophilus (2×109 CFU/g), Lactobacillus casei (2×109CFU/g) and Bifidobacterium bifidum (2×109 CFU/g) or placebo. Without intervening on these fronts, they controlled for diet and exercise.
At the end of eight weeks, there was a significant difference in mood as assessed by the Beck Depression Inventory, but perhaps more interestingly, blood work revealed significant decreases in serum insulin levels, improvement in insulin resistant assessment, serum hs-CRP, and a significant rise in plasma total glutathione (GSH) levels compared with the placebo.
If a drug were capable of this multitude of side benefits rather than the 75 unintended consequential side effects (some of which may be permanent and disabling), it would most certainly make the Times front page.
One of the documented effects of probiotic bacteria is on the stress response or HPA axis. Arguably the most top-down of interventions, regulating the stress response determines the inflammatory, immune, and digestive responses in turn. Established at and shortly after birth, gut bacteria acquired from mama set up an individual’s stress hormone response profile. The potential for bacteria to regulate and reregulate this response may have to do with signaling through the vagus nerve or even repairing local damage and inflammation.
But, the beauty of this intervention is that it is low to no risk, multimodally effective, and we therefore don’t even need to understand the precise mechanisms of its impact. Time and again, I have learned that when you work with nature, she is merciful and generous.