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Toward a Biopsychosocial Ecology of the Human Microbiome, Brain-Gut Axis, and Health

Maier, Karl J. PhD; al'Absi, Mustafa PhD

doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000515
Review

Objective: Rapidly expanding insights into the human microbiome and health suggest that Western medicine is poised for significant evolution, or perhaps revolution—this while medicine continues on a trajectory from reductionism to a biopsychosocial (BPS) paradigm recognizing biological, psychological, and social influences on health. The apparent sensitivity of the microbiota to perturbations across BPS domains suggests that a broad and inclusive framework is needed to develop applicable knowledge in this emerging area. We outline an ecological framework of the human microbiome by extending the BPS concept to better incorporate environmental and human factors as members of a global, dynamic set of systems that interact over time.

Methods: We conducted a selective literature review across disciplines to integrate microbiome research into a BPS framework.

Results: The microbiome can be understood in terms of ecological systems encompassing BPS domains at four levels: (a) immediate (molecular, genetic, and neural processes), (b) proximal (physiology, emotion, social integration), (c) intermediate (built environments, behaviors, societal practices), and (d) distal (physical environments, attitudes, and broad cultural, economic, and political factors). The microbiota and host are thus understood in terms of their immediate interactions and the more distal physical and social arenas in which they participate.

Conclusions: A BPS ecological paradigm encourages replicable, generalizable, and interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary research and practices that take into account the vast influences on the human microbiome that may otherwise be overlooked or understood out of context. It also underscores the importance of sustainable bioenvironmental, psychological, and social systems that broadly support microbial, neural, and general health.

From the Department of Psychology (Maier), Salisbury University, Salisbury, Maryland; and Departments of Family Medicine and Community Health and Biobehavioral Health and Population Sciences (al'Absi), University of Minnesota Medical School, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Karl J. Maier, PhD, Department of Psychology, Salisbury University, 305 Holloway Hall, 1101 Camden Ave, Salisbury, MD 21801. E-mail: kjmaier@salisbury.edu

Received for publication July 29, 2016; revision received June 29, 2017.

Copyright © 2017 by American Psychosomatic Society