You’ve probably heard about the rising importance of the microbiome — otherwise known as your gut bacteria. Researchers have started to find interesting links between the naturally occurring bacteria that live in our guts, and things we’ve traditionally attributed to the brain. Things like our mood, feelings, and even thoughts. We now know, for instance, that gut bacteria can influence brain function.
What has the research found linking the microbiome to serious mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder?
Both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are serious forms of mental illness that significantly impact a person’s mood and functioning. Schizophrenia is characterized by a person experiencing delusions and hallucinations, while withdrawing from life socially and increased apathy. Some people with schizophrenia also suffer from reduced cognitive abilities and impaired social functioning. Bipolar disorder is characterized by swings in mood between mania and severe depressive episodes.
Both disorders are marked by significant distress in the person’s life who experiences them and a positive response to specific psychiatric medications that seem to help keep the disorder at bay. Genetic studies conducted on these disorders suggest a genetic overlap between them. However, little of the risk of being diagnosed with either disorder have been reliably associated with a distinct set of genes.
Researchers (Dickerson et al., 2017) have recently reviewed the connection between the microbiome, immunity, and these disorders to better understand their relationship. “Previous studies have demonstrated that both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are associated with alterations of the systemic immune system including low-grade chronic inflammation (increased plasma cytokines, soluble cytokine receptors, chemokines, acute phase reactants) and T-cell activation features.”