FASCINATING research finds link between gut bacteria and social behavior

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gut-microbiome(NaturalHealth365) Are you a loner – or a crowd lover?  New research published in Frontiers in Psychiatry shows that this may depend – at least in part – on the diversity of your gut bacteria.  Strange as it may sound, the health of the gut microbiome (the community of beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract) may help to shape personality, and even influence traits such as wisdom and sociability.

A few decades ago, the concept that microbes in the intestinal tract could affect mood and personality would have sounded ridiculous to many in Western medicine.  But peer-reviewed research published in reputable scientific journals has confirmed that the gut microbiome is indeed linked to mental health – and even affects susceptibility to psychological conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.  Clearly, this intriguing connection deserves a closer look.

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The gut microbiome is made up of literally trillions of microbes and features over 1,000 different types of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and yeasts.  (And, if that’s hard to get your head around, image this: the microbiome accounts for between 2 and 4 pounds of body weight!)  The microbiome performs an array of vital tasks, including regulating immune activity, preventing infections, reducing inflammation, and enhancing the absorption of minerals.  Lately, researchers have been particularly intrigued by the “gut-brain axis” – a pathway linking intestinal function to the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain.

Ideally, the microbiome contains a wide variety of beneficial bacteria, along with pathogenic disease-causing species.  Problems begin when the all-important diversity and balance of this community are disturbed.  This condition, known as dysbiosis, is characterized by smaller numbers of “friendly” bacteria, larger numbers of disease-causing bacteria, and less diversity of species in general.  Dysbiosis is associated with a stunning range of illnesses, including asthma, autism, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, depression, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, diabetes, and heart disease.

Research links loneliness to poor gut health

The 2021 UC-SD study involved 187 adult participants, ranging in age from 28 to 97, who completed professionally validated self-report-based measures of loneliness, wisdom, compassion, social support, and social engagement.  The health and diversity of their gut microbiomes were then evaluated using fecal samples.

The results were clear.

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“We found that lower levels of loneliness and higher levels of wisdom, compassion, social support, and engagement were associated with greater … richness and diversity of the gut microbiome,” reported study author Tanya T. Nguyen, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine.  Reduced microbial diversity, on the other hand, was associated with poorer physical and emotional health.

Although it clearly revealed a close link between poor gut health and loneliness, the research also raised a sort of “chicken and the egg” conundrum.  The scientists acknowledged that they didn’t know for certain whether loneliness itself causes harmful changes in the gut microbiome – or if these changes could then predispose an individual towards loneliness.

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Just how relevant to health are intangibles like loneliness and wisdom?

Extremely relevant, as it turns out.

The researchers characterized loneliness as a “serious public health problem” that is linked with increased morbidity and mortality.  The state of loneliness is associated with changes in heart, neuroendocrine and immune function, and causes elevations in pro-inflammatory chemical markers in the body.  In addition, it causes decreased stability of the gut microbiota, reducing resistance to stress-related disruptions and triggering harmful systemic inflammation.  It’s not at all surprising that the researchers characterized lonely people as more susceptible to developing different diseases.

Wisdom, on the other hand, involves desirable skills such as reflective thinking, self-awareness, empathy, compassion for others, and comprehension of the deeper meaning of life events.  Multiple studies have shown that people viewed as “wiser” are less prone to loneliness – and those who report being lonely tend to be less wise.

While researchers are convinced that healthy, diverse gut microbes can help alleviate the negative effects of chronic stress – and of loneliness – more research is obviously needed to further explore the relationships.

What can you do to enrich the gut microbiome?

If you suspect your gut microbiome diversity leaves something to be desired, natural health experts advise proper nutrition – specifically, a plant-based, unprocessed diet – as the first line of defense.  Naturally, fermented foods – such as yogurt with active cultures, miso, kimchi, and fresh sauerkraut – are of paramount importance.  You can also support a healthy gut microbiome by consuming plenty of fiber from whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables – while reducing animal proteins and saturated fats in the diet.  Fiber generates short-chain fatty acids – such as butyrate – that help to detoxify carcinogens and regulate cholesterol levels, appetite, and weight.  In addition, many fiber-rich foods, such as asparagus, chicory root, bananas, garlic, and onions, are prebiotic, meaning that they provide direct nourishment for beneficial bacteria.

Supplementation with the appropriate probiotics (live organisms that encourage the presence of “friendly” bacteria) can also be helpful.  Studies have shown that probiotic interventions in the gut microbiome can reduce levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone.”  And, one double-blind placebo-controlled trial using the probiotics L. helveticus and B. longum for 30 days led to improvements in mood and better problem-solving, along with reduced depression and hostility.  However, check first with your integrative doctor before supplementing.

The point is: it’s not that wise people are never lonely – but wisdom and social support might help to protect against loneliness-related instability of the microbiome.  After all, multiple studies have shown that people with larger social networks tend to have more diverse gut bacteria.

In other words: having supportive friends in the outer world may help promote the health of friendly bacteria in the “inner world” – and play a role in promoting happiness and well-being.

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