Did Sam Nunberg Reveal An Important Scientific Truth?

Did Sam Nunberg Reveal An Important Scientific Truth?

Final Question in Interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett May Speak to Link Between Anti-Depressant Medication and Alcohol

During an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, former Trump aide Sam Nunberg was accused by some anonymous people as “either drunk or off his meds.” At the end of the interview, Erin herself said she smelled alcohol on Nunberg’s breath and questioned him about it. He claimed he had not been drinking, just taking his anti-depressants.

Nunberg has been criticized for some of his responses during the interview. However, this is not about Nunberg, but perhaps a more important issue: what impact do anti-depressants have on the gut? And could taking anti-depressants, or even other psychoactive medication, lead to the formation of alcohol in the intestines?

The gut is sometimes referred to as “the second brain.” It has millions of neurons, direct connections with the brain, and can work independently of brain input although they often work together. The gut is also the place where critical neurotransmitters are made. For example 90% of Serotonin (the major target of anti-depressant medication) and 50% of Dopamine ( the neurotransmitter associated with motivation, reward and pleasure) are made in the gut and are present in it.

The gut, therefore, is basically the factory that makes many of the critical chemicals that empower the brain. The gut also has a bacterial environment, called the microbiome that contains millions of bacteria, some healthy, some less so, that actually influence gut function and thus brain function. These microbes significantly influence the break down of foods into component chemicals, thus contributing to the supply of neurotransmitters and other essential chemicals.

We have a language that references “gut feelings” and the gut generally as a place where emotions manifest. While it is tempting to conclude that the gut therefore affects the brain, the reverse is also very definitely possible.

There is a relationship, for example, between depression and obesity, especially in women, whose rates of depression are positively related to obesity.  Do women overeat to compensate for low mood? While that may seem a reasonable psychological explanation it might have its basis in physiology: the gut is trying to compensate for poor chemical synthesis. It’s as if the chemical factory isn’t working well and needs more supplies. On the other hand, some people lose weight while depressed or on anti-depressants. Is that because the chemical factory is overwhelmed and overstocked or simply not working efficiently?

It is possible for people to have different gut responses because their biomes are different, often based on exposure and nutrition at critical times of life. Weight gain is a side-effect of many anti-depressants, especially the ones aimed at increasing serotonin. It is natural to create a psychological explanation, especially in the absence of physiological information. For example, many people who have difficulty sleeping, tend to eat, especially sugary foods, when they can’t sleep. Must be the frustration right? Well, maybe, but insomnia also reduces leptin, the appetite control hormone, and increases ghrelin, the hunger hormone as well as influencing blood glucose. Perhaps that nighttime eating is more physiological than psychological?

In the same way, we are now beginning to understand that there is a complex interaction between the gut and the brain. Brain chemicals are influenced by the gut, and influence the gut.  There is an entire industry based on the notion that the gut environment has a major influence on health and that probiotics can create a gut that is conducive to mental and physical health.

Recent research has suggested there are eight ways probiotics can provide health benefits through several interconnected physiological networks.[1] Some research into this new field of ‘psychobiotics’ has suggested that changing the microbiome of an individual can reduce anxiety and depression. We are at the very early stages of understanding this enormously complex relationship between the gut and the brain. However, it seems likely that the gut microbiome has a significant part to play in mental health, and in the reactions to mental health medications.

Because psychiatric (and other) medications interact with the gut biome and the microbes within, such interactions can lead to fermentation in the gut. It is possible, therefore, that anti-depressant medications interacting with specific foods and a unique microbiome could produce alcohol.

Whether Sam Nunberg is a reflection of that yet to be scientifically proven process remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure; the reciprocal relationship between the brain and the gut, and particularly the interaction between medications and the microbiome, are set to be a rich and fertile field of research in forthcoming years.

[1] Malan-Muller,S., Valles-Colomer, M., Raes,J., Lowry,C., Seedat,S.,  and Hemmings, S.  (2018) The Gut Microbiome and Mental Health: Implications for Anxiety- and Trauma-Related Disorders, OMICS A Journal of Integrative Biology, Volume 22, Number 2,


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