Understanding the Gut-Loneliness Connection
Research shows significant links between loneliness, wisdom, and the human microbiota.
Researchers at UC San Diego conducted a study of the gut-brain axis to find an association between our microbiota, wisdom, and loneliness.
Chronic loneliness is more than a temporary feeling of sadness. As a long-term condition, it has significant health consequences involving the immune, cardiovascular, and nervous/endocrine systems.
Thanks to the 21st-century world’s online and cellular technologies, we’re communicating more efficiently than ever. However, instant connection via social media hasn’t eliminated our loneliness.
Despite the ongoing technological advances, the problem of loneliness has become a serious public health concern in recent years. But what if, instead of looking to technology to alleviate it, we went back to the biological fundamentals?
The UC researchers uncovered a correlation between the gut microbiota’s diversity, loneliness, and wisdom by focusing on the gut-brain axis. Not wisdom in the philosophical sense, but three forms of wisdom “influenced by our biology.”:
- Affective wisdom: positive feelings and behaviors towards other people, including “acts of compassion.”
- Reflective wisdom: self-awareness and reflective thinking
- Cognitive wisdom: knowledge of the world and understanding deeper meaning about life events
Affective wisdom is inversely related to loneliness. Can our dietary choices help us achieve it?
Based on the latest research, it appears so.
How the gut-brain axis may affect our cognition and behavior:
The gut-brain axis’ influence in these two areas has been gaining increased focus as a research topic. Why?
Because it serves as a conduit between our gastrointestinal and nervous systems by transporting hormonal signals. Imbalances in this system may lead to behavioral and cognitive disorders affecting our motivation or decision-making.
They may also increase the risk of developing obesity or inflammatory bowel disease.
The Study Methods:
The study involved 184 adults aged 28 to 97.
Each participant underwent a 25-minute Q&A interview covering their general health, anxiety, depression, and cognitive functioning. They also completed questionnaire surveys assessing loneliness, wisdom, social engagement.
Using at-home self-collection kits, they provided fecal samples returned via mail for ecological diversity analysis. The analysis (using Faith’s Phylogenetic Diversity Test) examined:
- α-diversity, signifying the bacterial variety within a participant’s digestive system.
- β-diversity, measuring the similarity of the bacterial variation between the participants’ microbiota.
The study’s results indicated significant associations between an individual’s gut bacterial diversity and loneliness, wisdom, compassion, and social engagement.
- Individuals with lower α-diversity experienced more chronic loneliness.
- Those with high α-diversity experienced increased emotional control, pro-social attitudes, and self-reflection.
The study also found older adults more susceptible to loneliness-related adverse health effects. The lower bacterial variety in their fecal samples led them to experience greater loneliness than the younger and middle-aged adults.
The β-diversity results indicated that the degree of an individual’s compassion and cognitive wisdom accounted for a significant proportion of their gut’s microbial variance.
The study showed a strong association between the gut’s microbial diversity and the degree of loneliness. Yet, this area of investigation needs more research – specifically to consider which came first: the low bacterial variety, or the loneliness.
- cortisol stress response
- reactivity to sadness
The significant correlations between gut bacterial variety, loneliness, and wisdom could potentially lead to interventions targeting gut microbiota – a natural way to minimize loneliness’ effects on human health.
“Psychobiotics” may soon become the new probiotics, as the demand for natural loneliness therapies increase.
Why wait for future treatments when you may have the makings of “psychobiotics” sitting in your fridge?
One of plantbased.com’s most popular posts this year discussed the incredible number of bacteria in our guts. Their estimated 39 trillion microorganisms potentially exceed the number of cells in the entire body!
So, what foods should we be eating for a well-balanced gut-brain axis?
For a healthy diversity of gut bacteria, a healthy diversity of plant-based ingredients is just what the doctor ordered.
Fiber Fueled author Dr. Will Bulsiewicz insists that “…the single greatest predictor of a healthy gut microbiome” is whole-food, plant-based variety.
Perhaps introducing a little wisdom into our food choices will balance our gut-brain axis, transform our gut bacteria into thriving communities, and boost our entire outlook on the world!
Healthy food, it seems, makes compassionate people. Yes! It’s about time we stopped inducing chronic loneliness by scrolling through our social media feeds.
Make a healthy meal, share it with someone you love or someone in need, and enjoy the wisdom of a plant-based lifestyle!