What defines a personality? Most of us think it’s located in the brain, but the source may be bigger than that. At least to some extent. According to the latest research, who we are, our personalities, specific traits and even our quirks, could all be the product of microbes in our gut flora.
The Gut-Brain in Our Bodies
The human body serves as a home for trillions of microbes, according to Science Alert, with the majority of them living in our guts. These microscopic hitchhikers may even outnumber our own cells, meaning each of us could be more microbe than we are non-microbe. The more we learn about the impact of this reality, the clearer it becomes that our microbiomes are integral to our health. But they may also be integral to who we are.
We have a truly symbiotic relationship with our microbes, with previous studies having established their vital roles in metabolism and immune function. Now, researchers are finding these microscopic organisms may play an important role in forging our very personalities.
The Role of the Vagus Nerve as a Superhighway
There’s a communications highway that spans between the brain and the gastrointestinal tract, the vagus nerve, which both the gut and the brain use to send chemical signals back and forth. When all is well and the microbiome is healthy, the gut sends a healthy balance of chemicals as signals to the brain, enabling the person to perform at their best. If there’s an imbalance between “beneficial” and “harmful” microorganisms, the signals that reach the brain can cause dysfunction, potentially even leading to mental health issues.
The Gut’s Connection to the Personality
A study recently published in Human Microbiome Journal examined the role diverse strains of microbes may play in defining our individual traits. They looked at five main characteristics that tend to remain most constant through an individual’s life:
Extraversion, or how driven someone is to seek out others for company, may come with high numbers of Akkermansia, Lactococcus and Oscillospira strains.
Agreeableness, or how cooperative and trustworthy a person is, could be a result of high microbiome diversity.
Conscientiousness, or how well someone is able to focus and hold attention to detail, may also be dependent on gut diversity.
Neuroticism, or a negative, worrisome attitude, may come with high numbers of certain Streptococcus and Corynebacterium strains.
Openness, or a willingness to accept new ideas and try new things, may also reflect a healthy microbiome.
Studies transplanting healthy mice with the gut microbes of depressed or anxious individuals demonstrate all too well the power our microbiomes have over our minds. Just one alteration to the gut can have dramatic effects on behavior. There may also be a connection between gut microbe imbalances and the development of atypical thinking patterns like autism.
Could the Gut be Pre-Loaded With Psychobiotics?
Researchers are currently looking into new possible therapy approaches that work by repairing the microbiome. “Psychobiotics,” the idea that we may be able to contribute to our mental wellbeing through the harnessing of gut flora, including probiotics, prebiotics, postbiotics and synbiotics, may have the potential to promote healthy gut diversity and thus bring more balance to the body. In turn, they may help regulate the chemical signals the gut sends to the brain, promoting mental health. Future treatments for depression, anxiety and possibly even autism and neurological diseases could lie in managing the gut and balancing the distribution of microbes.
Our gut health could be one of the most important contributors to our personalities, so we should take care to keep them as healthy as possible. Future advances may focus more on the role the microbiome plays in mental health, potentially offering ways to treat the source of the imbalances rather than the symptoms alone. Even a small difference could be a game-changer for countless people. And the idea that we could treat people in a non-invasive way that boosts true wellbeing and potentially contributes to long-term happiness, is definitely one we can get behind. (Pun totally intended.)