Planet of Microbes by Ted Anton: Links Depression/Anxiety to Gut


If you watch the Big Bang Theory, read the Science section of the New York Times and live on the line where nature meets poetry, Planet of Microbes: The Perils and Potential of Earth’s Essential Life Forms by Ted Anton will engage you in the history and future of microbes. Anton is as much a historian of science as he is a creative nonfiction writer. Anton was my science writing professor at DePaul in graduate school. So after I finished his new book I decided to contact him for an interview to shed light on microbes and health, specifically how they affect mental health.

You don’t have to understand science to understand Anton. He explains without patronizing, probing to the depths of life’s origins. He writes about how microbes influence health, mental health, and horticulture; how they are found in astronomy; how they can be used to fight disease; and how they can tell us secrets about the origins of life.

Anton got the idea for this book from his previous book Bold Science (2000). “The book ended with a Yellowstone hotpool with two researchers found 80 new species of microbe, including examples of a whole new kingdom,” he said. “Life is way more diverse in terms of microbes than first saw.”

Microbes play a role in anxiety and depression. “There is a strong link from our gut to our brain,” he said. “Gut is known as the second brain. Trillions of microbes live in the gut giving us the butterflies and our gut instinct.” Lack of diversity or a Western diet induce serotonin uptake inhibitors in the brain. This is why studies say we should consume prebiotics/probiotics such as yogurt, beer, wine, or cheese. “It’s controversial so you should discuss with your physician,” he said. The studies are correlation studies not causation. Studies show that a lack of diversity in the microbiome are due to anti-biotics. This may cause increases in the diagnosis of autism, ADHD.

If science were a movie Anton shows you the scientists behind microbes discovery, including the behind the scenes details of their lives. Reading Planet of Microbes is like talking directly to scientists. Anton sets the scene to give you every last detail of their worlds.

Tips for those trying to write the mental health memoir

Some of my advice stems from author Dani Shapiro, memoirist, who I had the chance to study with at a writing retreat. Dani along with my graduate school writing professors have inspired me that my book can inform, inspire and be written masterfully.

Find your arc and don’t make it totally about mental illness. Your arc is your over-arching themes. You could write a story about your mental illness or someone else’s and you can infuse moments of cooking into it. There you will have something a lot more people can relate too if they can’t relate to your mental illness.

Write about one or several moments of your illness. Don’t give us an autobiography.

Just start writing. Take one moment in your story and write a long essay about it. This is your first chapter.

Break your story down into moments. Write an essay for each one.

Keep a Commonplace Book of your favorite quotes. Some of them may be included in your book in front of chapters. That one’s from Dani.

Where you can, weave science fact into your story. This will make you into not just a storyteller but an expert.

Look for an agent but be prepared to self-publish. There are a surprising lot of people writing memoirs of this type. If you get a lot of rejection and still believe in your project, there are tons of ways to self-publish on the internet. My first novella was self-published. I’ll save self-publishing advice for another post.

If you have other questions, leave them in the comments or drop me a line on the contact page.