I’ve got a gut feeling

Online mag The Verge has been doing some interesting stories lately including this one which notes that the future of psychiatry may be inside your stomach.

Her parents were running out of hope. Their teenage daughter, Mary, had been diagnosed with a severe case of obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), as well as ADHD. They had dragged her to clinics around the country in an effort to thwart the scary, intrusive thoughts and the repetitive behaviors that Mary felt compelled to perform. Even a litany of psychotropic medications didn’t make much difference. It seemed like nothing could stop the relentless nature of Mary’s disorder.

Their last hope for Mary was Boston-area psychiatrist James Greenblatt. Arriving at his office in Waltham, MA, her parents had only one request: help us help Mary.

Greenblatt also prescribed Mary a twice-daily dose of probiotics, the array of helpful bacteria that lives in our gut. The change in Mary was nothing short of miraculous: within six months, her symptoms had greatly diminished. One year after the probiotic prescription, there was no sign that Mary had ever been ill.

We all recognize there’s a relationship between our mood and gut. Anxiety often causes gastrointestinal issues and depression can result in a dull ache in the stomach. But we largely presume this relationship to be one way, our mind affecting our stomach.

For Greenblatt, this radical treatment protocol has actually been decades in the making. Even during his psychiatric residency at George Washington University, he was perplexed by the way mental disorders were treated. It was as if, he said, the brain was totally separate from the body. More than 20 years of work treating eating disorders emphasized Greenblatt’s hunch: that the connection between body and mind was more important than conventional psychiatry assumed. “Each year, I get more and more impressed at how important the GI tract is for healthy mood and the controlling of behavior,” Greenblatt said. Among eating disorder patients, Greenblatt found that more than half of psychiatric complaints were associated with problems in the gut — and in some patients, he says he has remedied both using solely high-dose probiotics, along with normalizing eating.

I’m reminded of a segment in one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books where he described the work of some scientists studying facial expressions. These two fellows were spending all their time making faces of different emotions at each other. After two weeks of making sad or depressed faces one of the guys reported that he was actually feeling miserable. The relation between mood and face was a two way street. Maybe the same is true with the stomach.

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