Humans can be a violent, bloodthirsty species. We are, after all, omnivorous creatures who, all throughout human history, relied on consumption of the organs and meat of animals we slaughtered (and using their skins for clothing and foot coverings), as well as roots, berries, nuts, etc. that we gathered. But we wreaked our violence not only on non-human species, but on each other. Humans are competitive, battling for control of food resources, land, and each other. None of this is new. And methods can be ruthless—burning, dismembering, crucifixion, and all the other ways humans have devised to kill each other.
But do you get the sense that, while society has dampened the exertion of these impulses by developing a legal system, the constellation of human health and behavior have gotten worse these last few years? Evidence for increased violence against each other, as well as evidence for increasing individual unhappiness and deteriorating mental health seems to be increasing. Witness:
- Suicide is increasing sharply. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a 35% increase in suicide attempts between 2005 and 2015.
- The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that domestic violence increased by an astounding 42% between 2016 and 2018 (well before the pandemic began).
- Suicidal ideation (i.e., thinking about and making plans for suicide) has increased every year since 2011.
- Rates of substance abuse (opiates, methamphetamine, cocaine, etc.) increases every year
- A U.S. Preventive Services task force has released guidelines that suggest that children 8 years of age and older be screened for anxiety. This addresses a trend of increasing anxiety that was present even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yes, the pandemic made all these phenomena worse. But all the above were trending upward before the isolation, disruption, and financial struggles of the pandemic got underway. So what is going on that is causing a widespread deterioration in mental health? Surely, the explanations are multifactorial, with causes varying among different age and socioeconomic groups: widening economic disparities, rise of technology at the expense of human interaction, and numerous others.
But could disruption of the gastrointestinal (GI) microbiome be a contributor? I am convinced that it is not only a contributor, but a major contributor. How could disruptions of the microbiome be associated with violence, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, or depression? There are a number of ways that include:
- Loss of important species—The many factors we have previously discussed that disrupt the human GI microbiome, such as antibiotics and other prescription drugs, food preservatives and emulsifiers, chlorinated drinking water, glyphosate, etc. have eliminated important species from the GI microbiomes of many people. L. reuteri, for example, previously ubiquitous in the human GI microbiome, has been almost entirely lost from modern people, as it is susceptible to common antibiotics such as penicillin and amoxicillin. Loss of L. reuteri means that you are less able to provoke release of the hormone, oxytocin, the hormone of love, empathy, and affection. Reduced levels of oxytocin can mean feeling less connected to your partner, your family, your community. It can mean less intense affection for the people close to you, reduced capacity to understand the opinions of others. There are other microbial species that have been reduced or lost, such as Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum, that, when restored, can help lift the symptoms of depression. Or Lactobacillus casei that can reduce feelings of stress. These “psychobiotics” play major roles in determining mood, the internal dialogues we have with ourselves, and, of course, our actions.
- Proliferation and ascent of unhealthy bacterial species—The important species specified above ordinarily keep unhealthy microbes at bay, keeping them from proliferating. But lose important species and unhealthy species are allowed to proliferate and then ascend up the 24-feet of small intestine. The small intestine is not adapted to large numbers of microbes, as it is lined by a fragile single-layer mucus barrier separating microbes from intestinal cells, unlike the colon that is adapted to large numbers of microbes with a thick two-layer mucus barrier. The trillions of microbes that have invade the small intestine live and die over hours, not years or decades, releasing debris into the GI tract. Some of this debris, especially components of their cell walls such as lipopolysaccharide (LPS), penetrate the thin small intestine mucus barrier and gain entry into the bloodstream. This is one of the major ways in which the GI microbiome can exports its effects to the skin, heart, thyroid, breast, liver, brain and other organs. We now know that increased levels of LPS in the bloodstream generate the phenomena of depression and anxiety. The full spectrum of mental and behavioral changes experienced by the surge in blood levels of LPS have not yet been charted, but it is my prediction that increased LPS endotoxemia will prove to be a major driver of suicidal ideation, violent behavior, as well as depression and anxiety.
Perhaps there is little we can do as individuals to address societal issues such as income disparities. But there is plenty you can do to address the disruption of the GI microbiome. Begin by restoring Lactobacillus reuteri, as we do with our L. reuteri yogurt. Then explore the question of whether you have SIBO. You can look for telltale signs such as malabsorption of fat (fat droplets in the toilet) or intolerances to various foods (nightshades, histamine-containing foods, legumes, fruit, FODMAPS). You can test for breath H2 with the AIRE device with a positive reading within 90 minutes of consuming a prebiotic fiber suggesting that microbes have colonized the upper GI tract. Should you decide that you do indeed have SIBO to explain your depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, hatred, rosacea, psoriasis, weight loss plateau, stubbornly high HbA1c, fatty liver, persistent small LDL particles, or other phenomenon, then I would suggest that you start with my recipe for SIBO Yogurt, a mix of microbial species chosen because they colonize the upper GI tract where SIBO occurs and produce bacteriocins, natural antibiotics effective against the species of SIBO. Lo and behold, approximately 90% of the people who have followed this strategy have normalized their H2-breath testing on the AIRE device and reversed the symptoms of SIBO.
If you would like to learn how to use the AIRE device (since the instructions provided with the device do not show you how to apply it to this situation) or make SIBO Yogurt, I invite you to read my Super Gut book that contains all this and more on how to take back control over your GI microbiome and thereby your emotions and mental health.