I’ll lay off the prebiotics for today, and give you something completely different, to start off this new month.
We all know by now about the bi-directional relationship between the brain and the gut. I’ve talked about it plenty of times on this blog, in relation to depression, stress, anxiety, PTSD, autism, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and more. Today, I’m reporting on research out of the University of California which looked at the relationship between loneliness, wisdom and the bacterial microbiome.[i]
Let me give myself a pat on the back here. Back in June, 2018, I wrote a post about healthy aging and the microbiome. Since we’re all getting older, it’s a topic that I follow pretty closely! Anyway, the paper I talked about in that post was about risk factors for developing age-related illnesses. After I went through what the paper listed, I wrote, “One factor the article does not mention that I would be willing to bet is a huge factor in the elderly is loneliness.” I then described a paper I’d read recently on how loneliness is associated with an increased risk of mortality. It doesn’t surprise me: humans are social beings and isolation is a massive form of stress. As the author’s of today’s paper start off by saying, “Loneliness and wisdom have opposite effects on health and well-being. Loneliness is a serious public health problem associated with increased morbidity and mortality.”
So back to today’s paper: these researchers note that wisdom has been shown to be associated with health and well-being, and that they have consistently found a strong negative association between loneliness and wisdom. (Wisdom, they define, as a “multifaceted human characteristic with affective (or compassionate), reflective, and cognitive dimensions.” Included in this, they list empathy and acts of compassion, self-awareness, and a comprehension of the deeper meaning of life events.) Thus, they were curious how this all ties into the status of the gut microbiome…which of course, makes perfect sense.
They surveyed 184 adults, ages 28-97, living in community housing and measured, via self-report, their feelings of loneliness, wisdom, compassion, social support and social engagement. They also collected fecal samples. The results will come as a surprise to exactly no one: the lower the level of loneliness and the higher the level of social support, compassion, wisdom and social engagement, the greater the richness and diversity of the gut bacteria.
The gut microbiome has already been associated with personality traits such as neuroticism, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, as well as stress, empathy and emotional well-being. Research has also shown a relationship between the bacterial microbiome and social behavior: we already know that people with larger social networks have more diversity in their gut bacteria.
In their discussion the authors point out that, “It is possible that loneliness may result in decreased stability of the gut microbiome and, consequently, reduced resistance and resilience to stress-related disruptions, leading to downstream physiological effects such as systemic inflammation… Thus, lonely people may be more susceptible to developing different diseases.” Social support, compassion, wisdom then may, “…confer protection against loneliness-related instability of the gut microbiome. Prior evidence suggests that perceived social support may buffer the negative effects of chronic stress on pro-inflammatory markers.”
Of course, as this is a bi-directional relationship, it’s also possible that social behavior is dictated by the gut microbiome. This has been definitevely established in animal studies, but not as yet in humans. Still, the future is promising in terms of being able to treat destructive feelings, like loneliness, by manipulating the microbiome: “This evidence presents the exciting possibility that future ‘psychobiotics’ may be a novel therapeutic option for behaviors like loneliness….the findings represent a step forward in understanding the relationships between the gut microbiome and psychosocial factors that have important consequences for health and well-being.”
[i] Tanya T. Nguyen, Xinlian Zhang, Tsung-Chin Wu, Jinyuan Liu, Collin Le, Xin M. Tu, Rob Knight, Dilip V. Jeste. Association of Loneliness and Wisdom With Gut Microbial Diversity and Composition: An Exploratory Study. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2021; 12 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyt.2021.648475