For millennia, the human race has sought to combat psychological disorders through the intervention of natural – and eventually synthetic – chemicals. Originally, the sources for these psychoactive substances were the various fruits and flowers, including the Areca tree (betel nut), the poppy (opium), and the coca plant (cocaine). But in the 20th Century, new actives were being created in the lab thanks in part to the discovery of lysergic acid, better known as LSD, in 1938.
By the middle of the 1950s, the psychiatric community was fascinated by the idea that mental health could be restored through the direct use of drugs or in combination with traditional psychotherapy. The idea took off in the 1960s as research continued to elucidate the biology of psychiatry. It essentially created a new avenue for psychiatric treatment: psychopharmacology. This inevitably led to the synthesis of a new compound, 3-(p-trifluoromethylphenoxy)-N-methyl-3-phenylpropylamine, which eventually became known as fluoxetine, and then, as we have all come to know it, Prozac. By the late 1980s, it was known by another name: the wonder drug.
Today, pharmacologic compounds for psychiatric treatment are numerous and up to 20% of all Americans are taking some type of psychotropic medication totalling some $34 billion dollars annually. While there have been calls for a reduction in use of these chemicals, primarily due to the fact that many are ineffective, there is a constant pressure from the public to have all their problems solved by a pill.
There is a different – and less costly – course to deal with stress and other psychological problems although until recently, there has been little to no attention paid to this option. The treatment does not involve an individual chemical but rather a plethora of them which act to reduce inflammation, calm stress and bring about a more pleasant mood. With a new article out this week from the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre in Cork, Ireland, there is even hope that severe and chronic mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may one day be a thing of the past.
They are called quite simply, Psychobiotics.
According to the authors, Timothy G. Dinan – whose name sounds as catchy as that of another psychiatric pioneer, Timothy F. Leary – Catherine Stanton and John F. Cryan, a psychobiotic is “a live organism that, when ingested in adequate amounts, produces a health benefit in patients suffering from psychiatric illness.” These live organisms are comprised not only of probiotics but also other bacteria known to produce psychotropic signals such as serotonin and dopamine.
While this concept may raise some eyebrows, this postulate has credence. There have been several examples in humans where the introduction of a probiotic has led to improvement of mood, anxiety and even chronic fatigue syndrome. But there appears to be a disconnect between the idea of ingesting a bacterium that stays in the gut and psychiatric behavior, which is controlled by the brain.
The answer lies in the fact that many psychiatric illnesses are immunological in nature through chronic low level inflammation. There is a plethora of evidence showing the link between gut microbiota and inflammation and studies on probiotic strains have revealed their ability to modulate inflammation and bring back a healthy immunological function. In this regard, by controlling inflammation through probiotic administration, there should be an effect of improved psychiatric disposition.
The authors bring up another reason why psychobiotics are so unique in comparison to most probiotics. These strains have another incredible ability to modulate the function of the adrenal cortex, which is responsible for controlling anxiety and stress response. Probiotic strains, such as Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifdobacterium longum have shown to reduce levels of stress hormones and maintain a calmer, peaceful state. There may be a host of other probiotic bacteria with the same ability although testing has been scant at best.
Finally, the last point in support of psychobiotics is the fact that certain strains of bacteria actually produce the chemicals necessary for a happy self. But as these chemicals cannot find their way into the brain, another route has been found to explain why they work so well. They stimulate cells in the gut that have the ability to signal the vagus nerve that good chemicals are in the body. The vagus nerve then submits this information to the brain, which then acts as if the chemicals were there.
If these probiotics were used in combination with those that stimulate the production of opioid and cannabinoid receptors, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, the result would be more than just a calming effect; there would be a natural high.
There is little doubt that there needs to be more research into the role of psychobiotics in mental health. Even the authors suggest that clinical studies need to be performed along with more fundamental research. However, unlike drugs such as Prozac and LSD, which are highly regulated, probiotics are readily available on store shelves. This in effect could allow everyone to join in a citizen science movement similar to that of the Erowid culture, which focuses on the effect of natural psychoactives.
All that would be needed is a hub and a name, say PSYCHOgerms, in order to identify the psychological wonders – and admittedly, duds – of the probiotic world. Should this happen, it may help one day to move past the era of pharmapscyhology and head straight into the more natural world or psychobiotics.