Tired? Check. Cranky? Check. Chronically stressed? Check.
It may be time to reassess your gut health. According to a study published in February, gut microbiome and metabolomic pathways can influence one’s personality in more ways than previously established, even affecting energy levels, fatigue and mood. Researchers from Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, who studied 20 participants, found that one out of four personality traits in an individual was influenced by and associated with distinct bacteria. For the most part, the gut microbiome does not change, but certain drugs, including antibiotics, can alter the body’s bacteria and change a person’s demeanour.
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The researchers, led by Dr Ali Boolani, a professor of physical therapy at Clarkson, investigated participants’ stool samples to study different levels of bacteria. The participants were interviewed and surveyed on the four traits that, according to Dr Boolani, are the basis of personality—mental energy, mental fatigue, physical energy, and physical fatigue. While more work has to be done, some experts in India believe that the research holds value in terms of describing the link between gut health and personality.
The gut and mental health
“Personality is defined by the many behavioural patterns, and one can likely predict the behaviour that someone tends to indulge in,” says Jigyasa Tandon, the founder of PSY-Fi Mental Health, a counselling psychologist, mental health researcher and educationist. While gut microbes define our external consumption patterns, they also have the potential to influence our behaviour by making us feel fatigued or energetic, she says.
Our personality depends on many molecular factors that impact how we perceive the world around us, and regulate our cognitive functioning and emotions. “One can experience gastrointestinal pain while being under massive stress or discomfort from the trauma standpoint,” she points out.
Dr Rakesh Patel, a senior consultant-gastroenterologist at Fortis Hospital, Kalyan, believes that while it is still too early to draw broad conclusions from the study, its findings are not implausible. He offers a detailed explanation of how gut microbes function and how they impact our physical and mental well-being.
He explains that the gut microbiome varies by individuals and influenced by a number of factors, including illness history, fasting, age, and more. In other words, the gut microbiota is the mirror of the person and is regulated by what we consume. Ancient texts and Ayurveda also reiterate that one is what one eats.
“Our identity is determined by where we stay, what we eat, and our surrounding environmental factors. This, in turn, affects the microbiota. It can also be affected by something small, such as an illness. For instance, if you have taken an antibiotic or travel and consume many processed foods, the microbiota is also altered,” says Dr. Patel.
To illustrate why it is essential to ensure that one eats healthy, he expounds that changing the gut microbiota is a standard medical process. This is evident from food consumption patterns in India itself, where the typical diet of a South-Indian person is very different from that of a North Indian. While people may like to explore and taste cuisines of another region, they will not consume that diet for long because their palate and gut are used to specific types of food.
“A North Indian person would not like to consume South Indian food for a long time and will eventually want North Indian dishes to feature in their diet, as their geography, environment, and genes are used to a particular kind of cuisine, which is different for both the regions. In conclusion, the gut microbiota is not the only indicator of a person’s characteristics,” he says. That is why it is important to eat natural food that is freshly cooked and does not have a lot of preservatives so that your gut always remains healthy.
Observations and experiments
Tandon says that there can be significant relationships between the gut and the mental health of a person since gut microbes ensure the healthy emotional and psychological well-being of the adult.
“On studying mental health disorders, one can draw parallels between how the gut and the mind are linked. The role of personality in the development or exacerbation of gastrointestinal disorders, including gastrointestinal inflammation, has been suggested by many,” she says. She adds that poor gut health results in negative behaviours, including irritation, frustration and poor cognitive clarity.
Dr Kersi Chavda, consultant psychiatrist, PD Hinduja Hospital & MRC in Mumbai, says that there are many organisms present and responsible for the proper functioning of the gut.
“Additionally, studies have been done to see if there is evidence of gut microbes affecting mental health or the personality of the individual. There is some evidence of probiotics helping mental health. They help counter fatigue and assist in treating conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Crohn’s disease. But there has not really been any conclusive evidence as the studies were conducted on a limited number of patients,” he clarifies.
He adds that there is some evidence of a positive effect on mood and irritability and a general lessening of fatigue. But, in his opinion, much more information is needed in this respect before solid conclusions can be reached.
“In my private practice, I have had some good results with the use of probiotics in IBS and with Crohn’s. It also seems to help in cases of sluggish bowel movement that is often seen in cases of depression. But a lot of study is still needed,” he says.
Divya Naik is a Mumbai based psychotherapist.