PTSD and the Gut Bacteria Microbiome: how your gut may be affected by your stress, and also offer relief from it

Image result for military ptsd

When I wrote The Symbiont Factor, I tried to highlight and clarify how the brain affected the gut, and the gut affected the brain. Since that time I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the quantity of research that has been published that backs up that bold claim. I have recently seen some patients with PTSD from trauma sustained during military service, and have been able to offer help by improving gut function and gut bacteria.

We all know the overused (here it is once more) phrase “like a chicken and an egg” which signifies that causality cannot always be identified. However, causal association can be bidirectional. Let me explain:

If a person’s brain controls the autonomic system (“relax vs fight-or-flight”) and the autonomic system controls the gut (through the Vagus nerve) then logically we can infer that traumatic stressful events that affect the brain also affect gut function. We also know that changes in gut function result in changes in gut bacteria, because a stressed and dysfunctioning gut is not a good environment to house healthy gut bacteria. So, stressful events alter gut bacteria.

We also know that gut bacteria change brain neurotransmitter levels and can directly signal the brain (also via the Vagus nerve). This means, and research has shown, that imbalances in gut bacteria can cause imbalances in brain function. Once both halves of this cycle are complete, a person has a brain that keeps their gut unhealthy, and a gut that keeps their brain imbalanced!

Research has now shown that imbalances in gut bacteria predispose an individual to developing PTSD after experiencing trauma. The imbalanced gut bacteria affect the brain’s neurotransmitters, making the brain less able to “bounce back” after stressful traumatic events.

This is particularly significant in the military population, because active duty is strongly associated with emotionally traumatic events during combat. It’s also significant when that emotional trauma is inflicted on fellow soldiers, with MST or Military Sexual Trauma being an example of this.

As a functional practitioner who helps patients improve their gut bacteria and brain function, I often work with food choices, diets, and the labwork we use to identify foods that a patient’s immune system has become sensitized to. One of the most common is gluten, and gluten can also affect the brain as well as causing inflammation throughout the body.

As a person who is very gluten sensitive, I realized long ago that MRE’s, or Meal Ready to Eat (veterans, color in whatever alternate acronym fits your experiences!!) are high gluten foods. While they are really convenient for camping and hiking meals, they are not an option for me. This may also help explain why so many veterans I’ve tested are extremely gluten sensitive.

Image 1 - Sealed-Individual-MRE-Menu-10-Tuna-with-Noodles-SO-PAK-CO-1991

Some gluten-sensitive soldiers have managed to find or create alternatives, as this website explains. This soldier even has a cookbook now!

Identifying immune reactive foods and eliminating them is key to improving gut bacteria. Only afterward can probiotics be used, based on labwork to genetically sequence the patient’s gut microbiome and identify which beneficial species are in short supply.

These two steps are key to improving the function of the gut-brain axis and open the door to further healing from PTSD by enlisting our microbiome to help our brain instead of harming it.


The Symbiont Factor:

Bose D, Saha P, Mondal A, Fanelli B, Seth RK, Janulewicz P, Sullivan K, Lasley S, Horner R, Colwell RR, Shetty AK, Klimas N, Chatterjee S. Obesity Worsens Gulf War Illness Symptom Persistence Pathology by Linking Altered Gut Microbiome Species to Long-Term Gastrointestinal, Hepatic, and Neuronal Inflammation in a Mouse Model. Nutrients. 2020 Sep 10;12(9):2764.

Hemmings SMJ, Malan-Müller S, van den Heuvel LL, et al. The Microbiome in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Trauma-Exposed Controls: An Exploratory Study. Psychosom Med. 2017;79(8):936-946.

Leclercq S, Forsythe P, Bienenstock J. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Does the Gut Microbiome Hold the Key? Can J Psychiatry. 2016 Apr;61(4):204-13. doi: 10.1177/0706743716635535. Epub 2016 Feb 24.,after%20experiencing%20a%20traumatic%20event.


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