Depression begins in the gut. More importantly, possible treatment emerges.

5-HTP could help both constipation and depression, but dosage matters.

  • New research at Columbia University Irving Medical Center points to a potential treatment for depression.
  • One-third of all sufferers of depression suffer from constipation, strengthening the connection between the mind-gut problem.
  • Slow release 5-HTP was shown to alleviate both constipation and depression in mice.

In 1890, psychologist William James applied the term plasticity to human behavior, implying that humans have the ability to change how we act. Until that point, the science community generally believed fate to be genetic: once born our story was pre-told, a convenient philosophy for those with power and resources, who could simply claim, "it was destined by birth."

Unsurprisingly, James's revelation didn't change many minds. The "born this way" mentality remained the driving narrative. Over three decades later, behaviorist Karl Lashley's research on rhesus monkeys showed that neuronal pathways can indeed change—speculation largely derided by his peers. It would take neuroscientists another four decades, over 70 years after James's initial comments, to come around to the fact that brains are malleable.

Perhaps more importantly, this research also showed no distinction between the murkier realm of mind and the now-measurable domain of neurochemistry. Researchers finally understood that mind and matter are not separate domains but interdependent and necessary pieces of the human puzzle. Though dualism remains our biological inheritance, we can educate ourselves beyond this primal instinct.

Thanks to research by neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita, neuroplasticity became common currency. While fundamental in the field today, behaviorists and psychologists took decades to come around. As psychiatrist Norman Doidge writes in his breakthrough book on the topic, The Brain That Changes Itself,

"The idea that the brain is like a muscle that grows with exercise is not just a metaphor."

We can be astonished that science couldn't recognize a fact as basic as neuroplasticity. Yet ironically, we're wired to not understand how we're wired. Minds might change but they're slow, especially when we're invested in a competing philosophy. This is playing out in the middle of another controversial suggestion that, in a decade's time, will seem like common sense: neurogenesis is possible in the stomach as well.

How Your Gut Influences Your Mental Health: It’s Practically a Second Brain | Dr. Emeran Mayer

That's what a new study, published in the journal, Gastroenterology, claims. A team of researchers from Columbia University Irving Medical Center writes that this new domain of medical knowledge might help to correct gut abnormalities, a growing problem around the world, especially in nations that heavily rely on processed foods. Lead author and pediatric gastroenterologist at Columbia, Kara Margolis says,

"Though it's been known for many years that neurogenesis occurs in certain parts of the brain, the idea that it occurs in the gut nervous system is relatively new."

The study verifies a claim that has been circulating for some time: depression is gut-related. By focusing on the brain it appears that psychiatrists have been missing an essential jigsaw piece for decades. The neurotransmitter, serotonin, is the target of anti-depression medication; SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are the most prescribed class of pharmaceuticals for depression and anxiety. Their efficacy has long been debated, especially for long-term usage, which they were not designed for. That's likely because 95 percent of the body's serotonin is produced in the gut, not the brain. Emotions are not a "brain-only" phenomenon, but that's how the medicine has been distributed.

This is why such an emphasis is being placed on our microbiome. As Emeran Mayer writes in The Mind-Gut Connection, serotonin affects not only intestinal functioning, but also sleep, pain sensitivity, mood, appetite, and well-being. He continues,

"Your gut microbes are in a prime position to influence your emotions, by generating and modulating signals the gut sends back to the brain."

In the Columbia study, Margolis and team focused on serotonin's role in constipation in mice. They noticed that shortages in the neurotransmitter lead to a dour mood. By raising serotonin levels in both gut and brain, their depression was alleviated.

William James, 1842 – 1910. American philosopher and psychologist. From The Story of Philosophy, published 1926. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Up to one-third of humans suffering from depression also have chronic constipation, a condition that leads to 2.5 million physician visits and 100,000 hospitalizations every year. Many antidepressant medications lead to constipation, creating a tragic feedback loop. The medicine makes the condition worse. The reduction of gut serotonin inspires enhanced emotional turmoil.

While this observation is clinically useful, the team also discovered a potential cure: slow-release 5-HTP. This precursor to serotonin is widely available as a supplement, though professionals have long warned about overdosing and side effects; for one, it is a popular recovery tool for MDMA users. Nootropic advocates also include 5-HTP in their "optimization" strategies. Yet dosage matters. Just as multivitamins dump a lot of vitamins into your gut without regard for what you might actually be deficient in, getting serotonin levels wrong has consequences.

Margolis notes that supplements approved for sale are immediate-release, too short-acting to be effective in treating depression. Serotonin produced by this method is quickly inactivated. Dialing in the proper dose for a slow-release formula in the treatment of constipation and depression will take a bit of time. More research, including human trials, will be necessary. But the wait could be worth it.

"The idea that we may be able to use slow-release 5-HTP to treat conditions that require the development of new neurons in the gut may open a whole new avenue of treatment."

There is an easier way to tackle this problem now: eat the right foods. Sometimes old folk wisdom is the best medication. That said, the fact that the gut-brain connection is becoming popular science represents an important step forward in battling obesity and depression. We're ready for medicine to take another leap forward.


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3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type ''?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes in 28th place, and in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of,,, and — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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