Chelsea Matisz

A gut feeling: Researcher delving into how gut inflammation impacts mental health

Headshot of Chelsea Matisz

You may not have ever really thought about how your gut and your brain are connected, but if you’ve ever felt nauseous when facing a stressful situation, or been irritable when ill, you’ve experienced the effects of that complex link.

Dr. Chelsea Matisz understands the relationship better than most; the Postdoctoral Scholar at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neurosciences at the University of Lethbridge is studying how what happens in our gut affects what happens in our brain. In other words, how gut health affects mental health.

“When we have food poisoning or react badly to something we eat, it’s not only our gut that gets inflamed — the inflammation is mirrored in our brains, which affects our moods. We feel lethargic, irritable, and unable to enjoy the hobbies or activities that usually bring us pleasure,” says Matisz.

This is an important part of the healing process that pushes us to slow down, rest and recuperate.

“But when you have chronic gut inflammation (caused by Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, such Crohn’s disease and colitis), you also have chronic inflammation in your brain, and that can actually change the brain structure and function. So instead of having these sickness behaviours which go away once your body has dealt with the gut infection, you actually have chronic changes in your brain, and that can manifest as depression and anxiety.”

It’s not surprising, therefore, that people with IBD are more likely to have anxiety and depression than the general population. And while there currently is no cure for IBD, Dr. Matisz is studying whether vitamin D, cannabinoids or psilocybin (magic mushrooms) could be used as an effective treatment for mental health in people with IBD.

Canada has one of the highest rates of IBD in the world, and Dr. Matisz’s research has the potential to help hundreds of thousands of Canadians.

It has also earned her one of this year’s L’Oréal Canada For Women in Science Research Excellence Fellowships which support major postdoctoral research projects undertaken by young Canadians at a pivotal time in their career. Winning this prestigious award gets Dr. Matisz one step closer to her dream of running her own research lab.

“Getting this award means so much,” says Dr. Matisz. “Science is a field that attracts a lot of high-performing people, so you’re always wondering if you’re doing enough, if you’re learning enough, if you’re contributing enough. When you’re recognized for the efforts that you do, it makes you feel like you belong in the field, that you’re doing something right.”

Celebrating the accomplishments of women scientists is crucial in a field where men still hold most leadership positions, she adds.

“Having these awards that show what women in science are doing and how successful they are, is extremely important for the next generation of female scientists.”

Universities Canada