Some recent medical research has increasingly been focusing on the association of gut microbiota, an intricate and dynamic population of microorganisms in the intestine, with several physical and mental health conditions, including depressive disorders, stress and anxiety. Taking this research further, a new exploratory study by researchers from the Stellenbosch University (SU) in South Africa has found a link between specific gut bacteria and the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The findings, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine in October 2017, compared gut bacteria from stool samples of 18 individuals suffering from PTSD with those of 12 trauma-exposed participants, i.e. individuals who had experienced significant trauma but did not develop PTSD. The researchers found that people diagnosed with PTSD had substantially lower levels of three specific gut bacteria namely, actinobacteria, lentisphaerae and verrucomicrobia. These bacteria regulate the immune system and reduce inflammation. The research, led by Stefanie Malan-Müller, a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at the SU, hypothesized that “people with PTSD struggle to regulate their immune system functioning, and often have high levels of inflammation.”
Further, individuals who had experienced childhood trauma had lower levels of actinobacteria and verrucomicrobia. According to Malan-Müller, this finding was “interesting” since individuals exposed to childhood trauma had a higher risk of developing PTSD in later life. It was possible that in response to childhood trauma, the alterations in gut bacteria happened early in life. However, not everyone who experiences trauma goes on to develop PTSD.
Gut bacteria affects immunity and brain function
A growing body of research has identified that mental illnesses like affective disorders, anxiety disorders and psychotic disorders are caused not only by psychological or genetic factors but also from “full-body, inflammatory conditions related to the immune state”. Studies, many of which are based on animal models, have found that gut microbiota affects brain function, stress, behavior and memory. Stress may impact bacterial growth and damage the gut lining, allowing bacteria and toxins to enter the bloodstream. This may cause inflammation, which is a contributory factor in many psychiatric disorders.
In the United States, it is estimated that nearly 60 percent men and 50 percent women experience at least one traumatic event during their lifetime, and 7-8 percent of the American population will develop PTSD at some point. Children and teens may develop PTSD as a result of one or more adverse events, including sexual or physical abuse and witnessing/being involved in violent events like shootings, natural disasters or accidents. It was previously estimated that 5 percent adolescents aged 13-18 years met the criteria for PTSD in their lifetime.
Potential for new PTSD treatments
So far, research has not yet been able to establish if the differences in composition of gut microbiota actually cause PTSD and other psychiatric disorders or are a result of such disorders. The researchers asserted that investigations into these gut-brain connections will help in understanding the factors contributing to PTSD and developing future treatments for several diseases despite the current limitations of such knowledge.
Past research has concluded that the presence or absence of conventional gut microbiota influences the development of behavior along with neurochemical changes in the brain. If future studies can establish a link between PTSD and inflammation, it could lead to potentially newer and better treatments.
Dealing with PTSD
For many children, PTSD symptoms reduce on their own after some months. However, if the symptoms are severe and timely treatment is not provided, they may linger for years. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective treatment for PTSD in children and adolescents. Other treatment approaches include psychological first aid (PFA), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and play therapy.
As one of the leading therapeutic boarding schools in the United States, White River Academy helps teen boys aged between 12 and 17 years recover from mental disorders, including PTSD in teens. Call our 24/7 helpline or chat online with one of our experts to know about the best treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in children.