Published 12/14/2013. Updated 2/28/2014. Last updated 7/18/2017.
As someone who suffered through a nasty Clostridium difficile infection in my colon and then its rather unpleasant aftermath and lived to tell about it – and who is also a psychotherapist, my primary interest in the Gut-Brain Axis is in the former, the gut (the seat of our feelings). The brain is certainly interesting in its own right, but the gut is closer to my heart so to speak. If the psychotherapist-gut connection isn’t clear to you at the outset, it will become so as we work our way through this vast topic told from my biased perspective.
A patient was working hard in psychotherapy with me but her depression remained immovable. Finally she mentioned she had a digestive problem that interfered with the absorption of nutrients from food passing through her intestines– and I wondered if that was the source of her mood imbalance as well as the reason there had been no improvement. No one I asked knew anything about that.
My chronic allergies and general body inflammation got so severe, polyps began growing inside my nasal passages, making it impossible to breathe through my nose. The polyps made eating and drinking tiring since I couldn’t breathe and swallow at the same time. And having to breathe through my mouth at night dried me out and made it hard to sleep deeply. I felt depleted of energy … and depressed. After a second polyps removal surgery in as many years (they tend to grow back over and over again unless you figure out how to make your body less prone to being inflamed), I decided to seek alternatives to Western medicine for solutions to these problems – and my allergies greatly improved. At some point during this journey back to health, I realized those years of difficulty getting enough oxygen had been physically depressing – that I wasn’t actually emotionally depressed. See Sinuses for more information.
I was enjoying myself on vacation in Paris when I started having episodes of diarrhea every morning. They became increasingly intense and frequent after my return home, often leaving me feeling weak and decidedly unwell.
Tests revealed a Clostridium difficile infection, along with a few other bacterial infections, a parasite and low gut immunity. I learned that years of being given antibiotics prophylactically for dental cleanings and for infections had seriously diminished the healthy flora in my gut, allowing the sturdy C. difficile bacteria to take hold.
The accepted treatment of C. diff was then (and largely still is) massive doses of more antibiotics. That made little sense to me. I also learned that C. diff infections treated with antibiotics have a 25% chance of recurring – often with a vengeance. Once the antibiotic has cleared the gut, spores containing C. diff re-emerge from the colon walls where they have burrowed in, break open, find few healthy digestive bacteria left and easily populate the gut again.
So I enlisted the aid of my trusted holistic health care providers and, working together, we found a way to vanquish this nasty infection without pharmaceuticals.
You can read more about Clostridium difficile and how I treated my infection here: Hardin, 2011.
A new psychotherapy patient was sleeping either way too much or too little; had brain fog, chronic upper respiratory allergy symptoms, constipation and horrible PMS symptoms followed by debilitating menstrual periods; and became virtually incapacitated by even moderate amounts of alcohol – for days. Psychiatrists over the years, noticing her depression, had put her on a great variety of psychotropic medications. Nothing had helped much. Some made her feel worse.
She agreed to taper off the pharmaceuticals and began working with a holistic health care provider who understood that her gut flora was seriously out of balance so gave her appropriate probiotics.
We talked about the gut flora and food sensitivities and she gradually gave up gluten and cheese, mostly avoided alcohol and added kefir to her diet. She is now making excellent progress in her psychotherapy.
After my recently-gained understanding of how the antibiotics I had been given (mostly unnecessarily) by dentists and physicians as well as consumed unknowingly in my food over many years, I read Martin Blaser’s article warning that prolonged antibiotics use leads to long-term damage to our beneficial gut flora, seriously reducing our ancient microbial defenses against a wide range of diseases and medical conditions. This struck a chord of recognition in me. (Blaser, 2011)
Shortly after that, an article in The Economist called “Microbes maketh man”, with its catchy cover graphic, opened my eyes even further to the vital interaction between our guts and every other bodily function. We need balance in the large population of bacteria and other organisms living in our guts in order to keep our immune systems strong so we can achieve and maintain good health. (The Economist, 2012)
It was a long time coming, but I finally got the message: Good gut health is central to our overall well-being.
Blaser, M. (2011). Stop the killing of beneficial bacteria: Concerns about antibiotics focus on bacterial resistance — but permanent changes to our protective flora could have more serious consequences. Nature, 476, 393-4.
The Economist Science and Technology Editors (2012). Microbes maketh man: People are not just people. They are an awful lot of microbes, too and Me, myself, us: The human microbiome. The Economist, August 18, 9 & 69-70.
Hardin, J.R. (2011). Successful holistic treatment of Clostridium difficile gut infection: case study. Oriental Medicine Journal, 19:4, 24-37. See http://peggyfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/C.-difficile-OMJ-article-lo-res.pdf
A version of this page content will appear in my forthcoming 2014 Oriental Medicine Journal article THE MICROBIOTA-GUT-BRAIN AXIS: The constant two-way communication between our guts and our brains.
© Copyright 2013-2014 Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.