Why are so many of us anxious and depressed?
Between the years 1999 and 2012 the use of antidepressants has nearly doubled. And their use keeps climbing as we deal with more isolation, chronic illness and stress.
So what do we need to lift the clouds of sadness, angst, and stress that so many of us exist in? There is, of course, the lack of intimate connection and community which contributes to our feeling of alienation and sadness. For others it may be trauma, or early experiences in childhood.
But there is something else we are just discovering that is a contributor as well, growing out of a new understanding of what it is to be human. Scientists have discovered a new ‘organ’ inside us – what is being called the microbiome- it is a vast colony of benign microorganisms inhabiting our bodies that are deeply involved in how we function, think, and even feel emotionally. This microbiome is made up of millions of bacteria, yeast, single cell protozoans, and viruses. If all the genetic material of the microbiome or bacteria in our bodies were combined with our human genome only 1% of the genetic material we carry would be human. Bacteria in our body outnumber human cells by 10 to 1.
Incredibly, we are mostly them, not us!
This means our understanding of what it is to be human must be drastically revised.
Even more incredible is that it appears that the interplay of the microbiome with our biochemistry could be the primary driver for our emotional moods. Although the exact mechanisms are not all known , the beneficial bacteria in your gut produce over 80% of the serotonin in your body. Serotonin is closely associated with happiness and contentment. The new science of psychobiotics is an outgrowth of the understanding that the microbiome effects mental health. Research is confirming this - in one study sterile mice given the gastric bacteria of depressed mice became depressed themselves.
For many years the healing professions have known that emotional issues are often associated with digestive disorders. Among these are depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, Bi- polar, and autism. Could it be that the sanitizing of our lives from birth, our lack of contact with the soil, and the toxins we have ingested, have upset the delicate balance in our body’s gut microbiome? The huge uptick in psychological maladies over the last few decades may be the result of these stressors.
For thousands of years human beings played in the dirt as children and soil organisms colonized us. Evolution designed the microbiome and the human body to exist symbiotically together. Researchers now believe we are fully colonized by the age of two, and that it is difficult, but not impossible, to alter our microbiome after that point. And the current way we live is at odds with being able to do that.
Fortunately, there is still much we can do to bolster the health of these benign bacteria inside us that have so much effect on our happiness. Primarily, we can eat as we have evolved to eat, consuming ancestral foods that heal our gut, such as fermented products and local produce and animal products from animals allowed to graze and live stress-free lives. We can eliminate processed industrial food and eat organic. We can make a big difference in our emotional states by taking targeted supplements, like certain probiotics and prebiotics, designed to bring our emotion- supporting bacteria back to full vigor.
We are, as Walt Whitman so wisely said ‘multitudes’, and everything about our existence is entwined with the smallest, most ancient of living things – bacteria – which were the first lifeforms on the planet appearing billions of years ago.
We evolved from that original microscopic sea of life. When we care for them, we care for ourselves.