Even Hollywood is tapping into the booming fascination with the microbiome–gut–brain axis
In recent years, scientists and laymen alike have been turning to the microbiome with renewed interest to explore its interaction with human disease. Now, gut microbiota are even rearing their heads in popular entertainment. Films and television shows often tap into the public and political subconscious, and this is especially true for 2018’s films like "The Favourite", "A Star is Born", "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" and television drama "The Terror", whose psychologically unstable characters struggle with food or alcohol-related illnesses.
“More on gout: Once kingly, now common.”
2018’s hit films "A Star is Born and Can You Ever Forgive Me?" depict figures who were once prominent artists in their fields (a pop musician, a writer) whose loss of stardom sends them into a depressive state that is worsened by alcohol abuse. This year’s award show darling "The Favourite", isn’t about the gut microbiome or food-related illness per se, but does curiously set aside time in the narrative to show the queen vomiting, or suffering from an episode of gout, a disease known to affect 17thcentury Queen Anne of England among other past royal figures who indulged in rich food and drink. Back in 2010, Harvard Medical School published a health letter to this effect, titled “More on gout: Once kingly, now common.” Eating like a king can be a way for someone to flaunt their wealth, and the disease has made a comeback in the 21stcentury as more people can afford ‘luxury’ food items.
"The Terror", similarly centers around English noblemen and their indigestion – symptoms like paranoia and hallucination become the main act
The AMC limited series "The Terror", similarly centers around English noblemen and their indigestion: on the ill-fated Franklin Expedition from 1845-1848, findings suggest that the officers and later crewmen consumed lead-contaminated water and tinned food (the latter then considered a luxury item). Of all of these cinematic works, perhaps "The Terror" is the most psychologically fascinating, for the “insidious indigestion of lead” is said to have weakened both mind and body, making the ship’s crew members more susceptible to diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and scurvy. In the show, psychosomatic symptoms like paranoia and hallucination become the main act, the ‘terror’ that engulfs the crew – remember that these men sailed for three miserable years looking for a passage through the Canadian Arctic.
It has been noted that gastrointestinal bacteria have influence on behavior and cognitive processes
But scientifically speaking, does the gut have any proven effects on our psychosomatic state? According to a few recent studies, yes, there is evidence to this effect. A team of three researchers, in a 2017 article from "Frontiers in Psychiatry" (Lima-Ojeda et al.), set out to prove the relationship between gut microbiome, neurodevelopment, and depression. They contend the following:
Extensive research has shown that microbes that inhabit the gastrointestinal tract—or gut microbiota—are involved not only in both nutritive and digestive activities but also in immunological processes. […] It has been noted that gastrointestinal bacteria have influence on behavioral and cognitive processes.
Better bellies for better brains
The term ‘gut feeling’ seems especially apt to describe the phenomenon the researchers observed. Of course, hundreds of years ago, the time in which the "The Favourite" and "The Terror" take place, these findings were not yet grounded in science, but people were aware of the relation between the two. What we definitively know now, is “the inclusion of vegetables, whole grains, fish, and fruits in our diet is positive for our gastrointestinal microbiome” as opposed to rich, kingly diets that surely consisted of more animal fats and alcohol than wild-caught salmon and green smoothies. Better bellies for better brains, to put it in simplest terms. Lima-Ojeda et al., for example, cite results from a randomized, placebo-controlled, study of adult prisoners, which showed that “a nutritional supplementation of EFAs [essential fatty acids], minerals, and vitamins was associated with an antisocial behavior improvement.”
The microbiota-gut-brain axis (MGB)
The point at which the gut and the central nervous system (CNS) intersect is known in the scientific community as the gut-brain-axis. Since the gut microbiome may influence the CNS, researchers like Lima-Ojeda et al., among others, propose to include the microbiome as part of this axis, i.e. the microbiota-gut-brain axis (MGB). As cited in the article, previous research already points to the gut microbiome’s ability to “modulate the function of limbic system…including regions such as amygdala and hypothalamus…. Emotional stress appears to impact gut microbiome composition… [and] the pathophysiology of neuropsychiatric disorders” such as depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, and autism, appears to involve gut microbiome changes.
Picture: ©Lima-Ojeda et al. Fig. 1
“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food” - Hippocrates
As the authors of the article point out in their conclusion, the question of human being’s relationship to food has been preoccupying intellectuals long before Hollywood: The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates expressed this idea by his maxim: “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”. After centuries of scientific advances, the idea that what we eat affects our mental wellbeing remains sound. But if you find it tedious to sift through the latest research in microbiome research, take a lesson from the tortured souls of 2018’s film and television hits and eat well in 2019!
- See also: Emeran A. Mayer, et al. “Gut Microbes and the Brain: Paradigm Shift in Neuroscience.”