First-year student Julia Ryan explores the gut-brain axis through the lens of her personal experience with microbiota dysbiosis and the long path to recovery.
Discussions on the microbiome and gut-brain axis have recently made headlines in wellness channels, popular media, and scientific journals. This area of research is one I am particularly passionate about, as the gut microbiome plays a role in influencing one’s immunity, physical health, behavior, feelings, and more.
I contemplated writing this piece for some time, but as the window of discretionary “free time” narrowly closes before the semester workload really kicks in, I decided to go for it. I value the ease of this space to share aspects of my story, a personal case study if you will. I speak only from my experience, aside from the scientific research I have perused, some of which is included in this article. I believe that my experience is educational in terms of better understanding the microbiome’s wide array of functions.
In 2017, I was in the midst of completing some of my public health courses abroad when, to be trite, disaster struck. I soon became intimately aware of the intriguing relationship between the gut microbiome and the brain, which appears to be a delicate, mutualistic bond.
I had arrived at my destination on broad-spectrum antibiotics following a “bad” flu shot in the United States. I fell ill to gastroenteritis just two days after arriving and was treated with several rounds of intravenous broad-spectrum antibiotics. Needless to say, as a result of antibiotics sufficient for a large horse, my body went completely haywire soon after. I visited the hospital over a dozen times and was admitted more than once. I underwent a procedure under anesthesia, after which I continued to receive antibiotics to combat the tide of unwelcome symptoms. In retrospect, this was quite a vicious cycle.
The microbiome performs its necessary functions, including breaking down essential micronutrients, aided by different strains of bacteria, numbering in the trillions. When the microbiome is imbalanced, the ratio of harmful to beneficial bacteria can become problematic. According to one study, even just one round of antibiotics can alter the functionality of the microbiome for a significant amount of time (i.e., 1-2 years). This subsequently impairs the microbiome’s ability to effectively synthesize vitamins and to metabolize, which in turn can lead to malnutrition.
Still, after arriving home to the States, antibiotics and procedures remained the suggested solution for the symptoms I was experiencing. It became very clear that there was nothing to battle, but rather the goal was to quiet the chaos of a once “normal” microbiome. As a result, at a point of extreme frustration, I vehemently told my team of doctors “no” and went on my merry way.
At this point, I was well aware of the concept of “food is medicine.” It seemed like the best way to repair such an essential part of the body. First, I had to complete three months of physical therapy to “re-wire” my abdominal organs and muscles to my brain so they may properly function once again. The damage was immense as a result of the medications and investigative procedures. The physical healing process required quite a bit of at-home work and mental fortitude. I never learned the particular mechanisms behind why I deteriorated so, but as many of us in the nutrition world know, this sort of microbiota dysbiosis can wreak a world of havoc throughout the body. I grew tired of the slow pace of progress, especially as a student eager to “keep up.”
It is important to remember that we are operating at the best of our ability. Coincidentally, I recently learned of the term “optimization” in an economics course at Friedman. Optimization is when an individual is doing the best that they can, considering their personal constraints. Some days, optimization for me meant quite a bit of a Ben and Jerry’s pint of ice cream. I tried the gamut of dietary patterns including veganism, low-FODMAP, paleo, and more. A change in dietary pattern is often recommended by registered dietitians to improve outcomes. However, in my experience, sharing meals with someone(s) in a healthy environment can be most beneficial to healing the gut and, therefore, the brain (or perhaps vice-versa). This is not to say that these dietary patterns cannot be positively life-altering, if done safely. As time has progressed, I have focused on maintaining a healthy brain, which has positively impacted my intuitive, nutritious diet.
In addition to microbiota dysbiosis leading to malnutrition, research suggests that the link between stress and the microbiome should not be discounted. Stress can contribute to the so-called “leaky gut” issue and worsen already aggravated GI symptoms. It can be difficult to quell excessive stress when dealing with such a frustrating set of symptoms. Studies have found evidence of “bidirectional communication” of sorts that may actually affect the microbiome’s collection of micro-organisms, depending on the signals relayed by the nervous system.
Outside of school and work, I do not take myself very seriously. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of laughter, fresh air, and purpose. I am so thankful to have my health even if my “new normal” is not what I would have expected at 23. I know firsthand the delicate relationship between the gut and brain and how a series of unfortunate events (or even a single calamitous one) can have injurious implications. I have accepted that some damage may never be undone, but much good can, and has, come from this experience. From my student perspective, this is a topic that must be discussed so that others have agency in their healthcare decisions, understanding that they may affect the wonderful conglomeration of micro-organisms that is the microbiome. If my story, albeit abbreviated here for the sake of space and the sparing of details, is any indication, exciting discoveries may continue to be on the horizon.
Julia Ryan is an MS/MPH candidate interested in health and nutrition policy, the gut microbiome, and happy food environments. She is always searching for the deeper meaning of experiences.