Gut thinking: the gut microbiome and mental health beyond the head

Microb Ecol Health Dis. 2018 Nov 30;29(2):1548250. doi: 10.1080/16512235.2018.1548250. eCollection 2018.


Background: In recent decades, dominant models of mental illness have become increasingly focused on the head, with mental disorders being figured as brain disorders. However, research into the active role that the microbiome-gut-brain axis plays in affecting mood and behaviour may lead to the conclusion that mental health is more than an internalised problem of individual brains. Objective: This article explores the implications of shifting understandings about mental health that have come about through research into links between the gut microbiome and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. It aims to analyse the different ways that the lines between mind and body and mental and physical health are re-shaped by this research, which is starting to inform clinical and public understanding. Design: As mental health has become a pressing issue of political and public concern it has become increasingly constructed in socio-cultural and personal terms beyond clinical spaces, requiring a conceptual response that exceeds biomedical inquiry. This article argues that an interdisciplinary critical medical humanities approach is well positioned to analyse the impact of microbiome-gut-brain research on conceptions of mind. Results: The entanglement of mind and matter evinced by microbiome-gut-brain axis research potentially provides a different way to conceptualise the physical and social concomitants of mental distress. Conclusion: Mental health is not narrowly located in the head but is assimilated by the physical body and intermingled with the natural world, requiring different methods of research to unfold the meanings and implications of gut thinking for conceptions of human selfhood.

Keywords: Mental health; anxiety; depression; embodiment; gut microbiome; gut microbiota; medical humanities; microbiome–gut–brain axis.

Grant support

This work was supported by the Wellcome Trust [105628/Z/14/Z].