science / writing

This is Your Brain on Bugs


By bugs, I don’t mean ones you can see.

I’m sitting in microbiology class listening to a lecture on diseases of the gastrointestinal system and when my professor shared an article I had a small revelation. I’ve pondered before the links between stress and creativity, the oft-repeated claims that depression is necessary for the creative, and the connections between mental illness and writers.

But how about the connections between our brains and the lowly bacteria living inside us? Normally we’re all one big happy family, digesting in peace, but from time to time something upsets the apple cart and all hell breaks loose. Leaky gut syndrome can lead to this, Tori Rodriguez writes, “Displaced bacteria can activate autoimmune responses and inflammation, which are known to be associated with the onset of depression, lower mood and fatigue.” The same article in Scientific American points out a link between another common gut bacteria and thought processes: “people who tested positive for H. pylori performed worse on cognitive tests, including ones assessing verbal memory.”

Maybe writer’s block has a physical cause at times? I know I can’t write, or at least, it’s very hard to do so, when I am stressed or ill. I hear from friends and colleagues that they feel the same way. I’m not sure it’s as simple as eating yogurt, although I enjoy that, and most people are just completely grossed out by the idea of a fecal biota transplant, although that therapy is fascinating with all the possibilities it opens up.

There seems to be a clear link between gut biota and anxiety, “Research has found, for example, that tweaking the balance between beneficial and disease-causing bacteria in an animal’s gut can alter its brain chemistry and lead it to become either more bold or more anxious. The brain can also exert a powerful influence on gut bacteria; as many studies have shown, even mild stress can tip the microbial balance in the gut, making the host more vulnerable to infectious disease and triggering a cascade of molecular reactions that feed back to the central nervous system.”

So this is a path that goes both ways. Not only can your tummy bugs influence your mood, but your stressing out can afflict them, as well. I know it’s not always easy to give up on your stress. But try, for the little bugs’ sake… and your own, and your family, and your readers who really want you to finish that next book.

But why? Why do we react like this? The speculation runs soemthing like this, after studies conducted on mice. “However, behavioral responses to infection often include symptoms such as somnolence and psychomotor retardation that, while supportive of recuperation, can render an animal vulnerable to predators, particularly if an animal is in an exposed situation, such as an open field. Thus cautiousness and avoidance of open, exposed spaces likely confers an advantage to recently infected animals.”

So there really is a reason that we want to curl up in the dark when we are feeling blue or sick. Studies on probiotics are not conclusive as of yet, but it likely couldn’t hurt to give it a try and see if it helps. Especially if you have recently had to take antibiotics. Who knows, maybe happy bugs will lead to more words on the page, and even better, a happy writer. As I have said before, stress suppresses creativity.


2 thoughts on “This is Your Brain on Bugs

  1. So where do I order these happy bugs? And a dose of skinny bugs while we’re at it. 😉 OK, I may have to wait a few years before they get sorted out and available.

    The frontiers of medicine sure can go in some really interesting directions!


Comments are closed.