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Psychobiotics: Microbes, Mood and the Gut-Brain Connection

Scott Anderson

Scott Anderson (@Psychobiotic) is a veteran science journalist with specialization in medical research and computer programming. He is the author of a number of books covering topics as diverse as Human Embryonic Stem Cells and Video Production skills, and he was also one of the creators behind the computer game Lego Island, which was one of the biggest selling computer games of the 90’s.

Scott runs a laboratory called Freedom Health that studies bacterial health in racehorses and has developed prebiotics for animals and humans, and his newest book “The Psychobiotic Revolution“, along with John Cryan and Ted Dinan from the APC Microbiome Institute, explores how and why your brain health and state of mind are intimately connected to your gut microbiome.

In today’s episode we discuss the history of the gut-brain research, how the gut and the brain communicate with one another, why the bacteria living in your digestive system may contribute to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, how western dietary habits lead to the destruction of a healthy gut ecology, and we also discuss some of the pre and probiotic foods that you can start consuming to bring your brain and body back into balance.

 

Related Links

Feed Your Microbes, Nurture Your Mind – John Cryan, TEDx Talk

Food for thought: How gut microbes change your mind – John Cryan TEDMED Talk

Book Recommendations

Images (modified) courtesy: Hey Paul Studios (Brain, Gut

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The Importance of Being Honest When You’re Not Being Earnest

Reading time: 13 mins

If there’s one thing depression and anxiety makes you good at, it’s telling porkie pies. Whether it’s a little white lie, such as blaming your trembling hands on a double espresso, or something more elaborate like staging happy-go-lucky selfies for Instagram when in reality you feel like you’re dying inside, we’re all guilty of it.

In a society where mental illness is seen as a contagious disease, lies are the vaccines that inoculate those of us who are suffering from being ostracized like emotional lepers.

My go-to lie is to blame every low or anxious mood on nausea. It’s the perfect affliction to fake because they explain away any kind of agitation without inviting further inquiry, and its impossible to disprove.

Been invited to a social event? Can’t. Feeling a bit ropey today. Maybe next time. Woken up feeling shit and depressed? Need to stay in bed, must’ve eaten something dodgy. About to have a panic attack in public? Sorry, I’m gonna have to leave, I feel a bit sick.

So long as you’ve confided in at least one or two close family or friends, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with playing your cards close to your chest. Not everyone needs to know your business.

But there’s another kind of lie that I was guilty of telling in the early days of my battles with depression and anxiety, and one that isn’t quite so innocuous. It’s a lie I see told week in week out by many of the people at the mental health support group I run, and I suspect you might have told it once or twice yourself.

It’s nothing too elaborate. In fact it generally consists of just six words. But what’s interesting about this particular lie is that it’s not even necessarily intended to deceive. Because when the person uttering it does so, they themselves believe it to be true. What they’re doing, in fact, is lying to themselves first and foremost, and to everyone else as mere side effect. And it goes a little something like this:

“I tried that. It didn’t work.”

In the early days of my battles with anxiety and depression, having never experienced anything like it before, my knowledge and understanding of what was happening to me was elementary at best. I had no idea about the possible underlying causes of why I felt the way I did. All I knew was that I wanted to fix it. And quick.

But in my rush to find answers, my haphazard approach to research was both broad and shallow. Whether it was meditation, exercise, CBT, you name it. I wasn’t interested in the finer details, the science, or the research behind any of them. Just gimme the fucking instructions, for Christ’s sake. Just tell me what to do and let me get on with it.

Cardio three times a week? Fine. Twenty minutes of meditation every day? Cool. Cut all processed foods from my diet. Let’s do this. But no matter what I tried, and I tried pretty much everything, nothing ever seemed to work for me.

And it appears I’m not the only one. In the two years I’ve been running my support group, according to all the feedback I’ve received from people about their own experiences with various self-help techniques, I’d estimate the success rate of the big three depression and anxiety antidotes – exercise, meditation, CBT – to be around 5%. If that.

What’s interesting about this observation for me is that it stands in stark contrast to the results of clinical trials, which in the case of depression for instance, demonstrate a success rate of about 60% for exercise [1], 58% for CBT [2], and 52% for meditation [3].

So, what exactly is causing this discrepancy? The answer, I believe, is self-deception.

More often than not, in reviewing our failed attempts to remedy our own mental health issues, when we say “I tried that”, what we really mean is, “I tried that a couple of times”. And when we say “It didn’t work”, what we really mean is “It didn’t work quickly enough”, or we just didn’t enjoy it, or we just weren’t disciplined enough.

While we may indeed be guilty of expecting too much too soon, or just too much of an easy ride, this isn’t immediately obvious, because in many other pursuits, fast results and having fun aren’t entirely unreasonable expectations to have. Think about it.

At the commencement of most new learning experiences, progress is experienced rather quickly. For instance you can quite literally attend your first guitar lesson having never once picked up a guitar in your entire life and leave an hour later having memorised three chords, and as a result are now able to strum along to dozens of different pop songs.

Same with learning a new language, or even driving a car. You can feel the results almost immediately. This makes it fun and only serves to fan the flames of your enthusiasm to continue learning. It is in fact easier and more fruitful in the early stages, and only becomes harder and more nuanced the further along you progress.

When engaging in techniques to alter our brain chemistry or the content of our cognitive processes, this supercharged learning curve is turned on its head. Results are often much slower to present, sometimes even nonexistent in the early stages, and then still very subtle when they finally do begin to emerge.

It’s only in the later stages of engaging in such activities that the results begin to accumulate to any significant degree. Therefore its very easy, and thus very common, for people to become disheartened and subsequently disengage in the early stages of remedial mental health pursuits.

This impatience, though understandable, is in truth, unjustified, and more often than not, I believe, fueled by an unconscious dismissal of the terms and conditions laid out by the program or technique we’re attempting to engage in.

This was certainly the case with me back when I was claiming that things like diet, exercise and meditation weren’t having any effect. The reason they weren’t having any effect is because I was attempting, through a paradoxical combination of haste and laziness, to employ the techniques in isolation of the parameters within which they were designed to be effective.

In other words, I was ignoring say, the 90 day aspect of the diet program, or the daily aspect of the meditation course, or just the fact that nowhere in any of the literature did it say that doing cardio was going to be easy, let alone enjoyable.

Truth be told, I don’t know of a single quick fix approach to any mental health issue that is taken seriously by the scientific community. Most of the studies demonstrating the benefit of things like CBT, exercise, meditation, etc, are between 6-16 weeks in length. Even antidepressant medication can take about 6-8 weeks on average to start working.

But when you’re in the depths of depression or racked with anxiety, that’s a fucking long time to have to wait to see results. So quitting early is common. Even clinical trials, where a team of therapists and counselors are often there to provide support and leverage to participants, tend to see a dropout rate exceeding 30% [4]. So if you’re doing this stuff at home, alone, it’s easy to see how this figure could double or even treble.

The problem with “I tried that, it didn’t work” is that with a little semantic sleight of hand, it’s true. You can easily fool yourself into believing that you have indeed tried X, and that no, in fact, X did not work.

But this is the same kind of slippery get-out clause a cheating husband might conveniently employ when his wife accuses him of sleeping with other women. A charge he is able to deny in good conscience because indeed he hasn’t slept with anyone. Sure, he’s had sex with ten women in the past month. But that isn’t what he’s being accused of. He’s being accused of sleeping with other women. But he’s never so much as taken a nap with a single one of them. So, technically, he isn’t lying.

And this, I suspect, is exactly what many people are guilty of doing in relation to their own lack of success in trying to remedy their depression or anxiety using self-help techniques. I know I was.

So what to do?

Well, in the absence of being earnest – that is, in the absence of being serious in ones intention, purpose, or effort – you just have to be completely, brutally honest with yourself about it.

If you didn’t enjoy doing mindfulness meditation, or you found running too strenuous, fine. No big deal. If anything, this is good! This is an honest analysis of the situation that can help you reevaluate your approach. Maybe you’d be better off trying vipassana or guided meditation. And instead of running, maybe try low-intensity yoga instead.

In convincing yourself that it was the technique that was lacking rather than your commitment to it or the way you approached it, and then dismissing the entire project as inadequate or fraudulent, all you’re doing is limiting your options for your recovery based on a false evaluation, leading you to potentially dismiss something which had you stuck to it for the prescribed measure of time, could have been of immense benefit.

Furthermore, being too quick to dismiss this or that technique can quickly begin to contribute to the illusion that you’re somehow incurable. A special case. CBT works for millions of other people but it didn’t work for me! Wow, I must be really fucked up.

Apply this dismissive approach to every half-hearted attempt at the options available to you and pretty soon you’ll find yourself locked inside a prison of your own making, the walls a mere mirage constructed entirely of false testimonials that have you convinced you have nowhere else to turn.

Depending in whose company you make these claims as well, the consequences could be much further reaching than the end of your nose.

Let’s say for instance you choose to claim that you’ve tried CBT and that it didn’t work, and then post this claim on a mental health forum, or announce it during a discussion with a mental health support group. In reality you didn’t try CBT at all, you merely dabbled for a few days and got bored with it. But they don’t know that.

A fellow sufferer, hear your denouncement of CBT as “a waste of time” because “it doesn’t work”, and on your condemnation alone decide not to engage with it, despite the fact that it may have been of considerable benefit to them.

The importance of this point can’t be overstated. Truth be told, there are a relatively limited number of legitimate – that is, adequately studied and clinically verified – options available to people struggling with their mental health. And we do a great disservice to these methods, which are often based on solid research and designed by hard working, well meaning people, by denouncing them based on false testimonials, and which only serve to unfairly destroy their wider reputation.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we should never criticize any of these methods simply to avoid discouraging those who might possibly benefit from them. On the contrary, they should be scrutinized to the highest degree, so that their methodology can be further refined and perfected.

But in order to scrutinize the efficacy of any therapeutic technique fairly, one must be reasonable about the bases on which they are to be scrutinized. Particularly when the technique in question requires a certain level of input and commitment from the person participating in it.

Is it really fair to scrutinize an 8 week daily meditation program based on a few sporadic days worth of participation? Hardly. To come to a negative conclusion about this particular meditation program based on this level of engagement would be analogous to a chef judging the outcome of a meal based on the recipe in a cookbook, but ignoring how he went about following the instructions.

It said four eggs, but I haven’t got eggs so I’ll just use a couple of turds. It said cook in a frying pan, but I haven’t got one of those so I’ll just use this rusty old hubcap. It said serve on a plate, but mine are all in the dishwasher so I’ll just spread it on the back of a raccoon carcass. Oh look, my scrambled eggs taste like shit. I’m not using that recipe book again. One star Amazon review: “Rubbish cookbook. Doesn’t work”.

On the other hand, let’s say you did complete the entire program down to the letter, and it really didn’t work for you. Now your evaluation of the technique is of genuine value to both the people who developed it and the people who are maybe thinking about trying it, as you can now offer up a detailed analysis of your own experience which the creators can use to refine their technique and the public can use to make a truly informed decision about whether or not it might be suitable for them.

More valuable than this though, is what the experience has taught you. You now know that meditation or yoga really isn’t the answer for you. But in seeing the entire process through from start to finish, you cultivated your ability to follow through and can now seek out other methods without looking back over your shoulder, confident in the knowledge that the road before you has narrowed based on conscious refinement and not pure self deception.

With all this in mind, maybe it’s time to look back over your past efforts to improve your mental health and ask yourself: That CBT course, that exercise regime, that diet program. Did you really try it, or did you just dabble with it? It didn’t work, or you didn’t do the work?

Now don’t get me wrong here, if you have been guilty of this, I’m not calling into question your commitment to the cause. I know you want to be able to see these things through. Nor am I underestimating the unfathomable level of resolve it takes to complete such mammoth tasks with any level of consistency while in the depths of depression or riddled with anxiety.

Believe me, I’ve been there. Jesus Christ, it took me four years and numerous half-arsed attempts before I finally mustered up the resolve to stick to anything for longer than a week.

All I’m asking is that should you call it quits at any point, that in hindsight you be honest about your level of adherence to the terms and conditions, so as not to misremember the experience and thus undervalue the potential inherent within the technique.

If you only managed three days of that 8 week meditation program. If you only quit McDonald’s for two days. If that exercise bike you bought was turned into a fucking coat hanger one week after buying it. Fine. No big deal. Just be honest about it. For your own sake.

And if somebody else asks you whether you’ve tried this or that therapeutic endeavor, this doesn’t mean you have to embarrass yourself by admitting that you didn’t really understand it, or that you just weren’t disciplined enough. Just say “no”. Because that’s the truth.

With this kind of honesty, you leave your options open to revisit certain approaches when you’re good and ready. For a fresh start, with a refined approach, and clear conscience. Instead of backing yourself into a corner that doesn’t exist because of failures that didn’t technically happen.

So, whatever it is. Whether it’s CBT, diet, meditation, exercise, you name it. Like my grandma used to say when we talked about fisting: Don’t knock it til you’ve really, really, tried it!

 

Sources

  1. The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC474733/
  2. The Efficacy and Effectiveness of Psychological Treatments: http://www.cpa.ca/docs/File/Practice/TheEfficacyAndEffectivenessOfPsychologicalTreatments_web.pdf
  3. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being, A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis: http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1809754
  4. The Uphill Path to Successful Clinical Trials, Keeping Patients Enrolled: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3684189/

 

Image courtesy: Carlos Luna