The intestinal lining is a protective interface between the digestive tract and the rest of the internal organs and systems. It is a semi-permeable lining that, when healthy, lets in small digested nutrients and keeps out larger undigested food particles and pathogens. When the intestinal lining is damaged, a condition known as increased intestinal permeability or leaky gut usually due to an inflammatory process in the intestines, larger food particles and pathogens can enter systemic circulation and trigger the immune system to create yet further inflammation that can travel through the bloodstream and reach areas of the body far from the digestive tract, where the damage originated.

In a recent study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers discovered a link between leaky gut and alcohol dependence. They found that gut bacteria that had migrated through a leaky gut triggered inflammation that was linked with alcohol craving in alcohol-dependent patients.

“This study suggests that there may be a link between inflammatory processes that develop when gut barriers to bacteria break down and risk for continued heavy drinking among people with alcohol use disorders,” noted John Krystal, the journal’s editor. “The findings suggest that it might be helpful to protect and restore gut integrity and to reduce inflammation when helping patients recover from alcohol use disorders.”

The study tested 63 alcohol-dependent patients for activation of inflammation and monitored for alcohol consumption and craving before and after the patients underwent an alcohol detoxification program. The results were compared with those from 14 healthy control patients. Those patients exposed to alcohol had a higher inflammatory response triggered by gut bacteria that was linked to alcohol cravings than they did after the detoxification, or when compared to the healthy controls.

This study is one more example of how our gut bacteria can control our mental state. Researchers have known for a while that inflammation plays a role in the development of some mental disorders, but they are still working out the details of the origin of that inflammation. Some of the research, like this study, has already linked the inflammation to gut bacteria. My hope is that this research leads to a gut-centered solution for these individuals, who may be more at the mercy of their gut microbes than we realize.