Investigating the Link Between Gut Health and Mental Health

ChE Professor Rebecca Carrier explains the current knowns and unknowns of the connection between gut health and mental health. While the two have been proven to have a clear link between them, the underlying mechanisms that cause these connections to be made are still being researched.

This article originally appeared on Northeastern Global News. It was published by Erin Kayata. Main photo: Are gut health and mental health linked? Science says yes, but the mechanisms of the link are unclear. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Is gut health linked to mental health? We know they’re connected but how remains a mystery, Northeastern researcher says

It was an act of desperation: A woman with irritable bowel syndrome was looking for relief from her symptoms. She decided to try an at-home fecal microbiota transplant, aka a “poop transplant.” 

Used to treat C. diff bacterial infections, this treatment can help introduce “good microbiomes” to the gut to ease gastrointestinal symptoms, and is being explored in clinical studies as a way to treat other conditions.

But the woman told Netflix in the documentary, “Hack Your Health: The Secrets of Your Gut,” that the at-home transplant caused her to get acne and depression — conditions her donors had — indicating a link between gut health and physical and mental health.

Doing an at-home procedure like this is risky and not recommended, said Rebecca Carrier, a chemical engineering professor and associate chair of research at Northeastern University.

But Carrier, whose research focuses on intestinal and retinal tissue engineering, said there’s other things people can do to improve their gut health and potentially their overall health.

Rebecca Carrier, associate chair of research in the Department of Chemical Engineering, researches retinal and gut epithelial repair in the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex on Jan. 24, 2023. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

There’s a “very well-established” link between gut health and mental health, as well as physical health symptoms related to nervous and cardiovascular system functions, Carrier said. But scientists don’t fully understand these links.

“What’s still lacking is the fundamental understanding of how gut health is impacting mental health,” she added. “We don’t really understand the underlying mechanisms. … We know that when a certain population has X, they also often have this shift in the microbiome. But we don’t know if X causes that shift in the microbiome or is it the microbiome causing X? That’s the biggest problem is not knowing. … I believe that as we come to understand these mechanisms more and more, we’re going to be seeing people using different microbiota-related therapeutic approaches.”

There are also studies to support the idea of good bacteria helping the gut, Carrier added. This is why traditional therapeutics like antibiotics can cause unwanted side effects — they wipe out both good and bad bacteria.

“There’s certain strains of bacteria which are known to correlate with negative health outcomes and other strains of bacteria that are correlated with positive health outcomes,” she said. “But what makes it even more complicated is that there’s certain bacteria … associated with a number of different really good health outcomes, but there’s certain negative outcomes associated with it as well.”

Read full story at Northeastern Global News

Related Departments:Chemical Engineering