Most people think that addiction is a disease that affects the brain, but it appears that mood, mental health and addictive disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and borderline personality disorder are also directly associated with gut health.
Also known as the gut microbiome, the gut consists of more than 500 distinct types of bacteria and trillions of organisms that do much more than help us digest food.
In fact, the gut is connected to the brain via the body’s longest cranial nerve, which passes through the neck and thorax. Known as the Vagus nerve, this is part of the enteric nervous system (ENS), which consists of millions of nerves, hormones, electrical impulses and neurotransmitters. Not surprisingly, the ENS is often known as “the brain in the gut, or “the second brain.”
Studies on the Relationship between the Gut and Addiction
Research suggests that gut health is associated with alcoholism, and that an imbalance in intestinal flora may increase the possibility of relapse, even after successful completion of drug and alcohol treatment and rehab.
One European study analyzed the intestinal bacteria of sixty alcoholics, all with very similar rates of alcohol use. Twenty-six of the participants were found to suffer from leaky gut syndrome, a condition in which waste that would typically be expelled in the stool is absorbed into the blood. After two weeks in rehab, those participants displayed little improvement and continued to experience severe cravings and symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The remaining participants, who had healthy intestinal flora, were recovering steadily and displayed significant decreases in cravings and fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Another study involved rats that were given antibiotic-laced water that wiped out nearly all the gut bacteria. The rats displayed marked negative changes in brain function and behavior, but when their little rat guts were returned to a healthy microbiome, nearly all of the behavioral symptoms disappeared.
More studies are required before scientists can determine the relationship between addiction and gut health, but research suggests that gut health should be considered in drug and alcohol treatment and rehab, with treatment plans reflecting the condition of each individual’s gut microbiome.
In the future, dietary treatments, it’s possible that restoration of gut health could be used to treat addiction and many mental health disorders. It’s also possible that gut health may be linked to a number of conditions, including autistic spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and even Alzheimer’s disease.