Loneliness and wisdom are linked to opposite effects on the diversity of gut bacteria, with lonely people seeing fewer species of bacteria in their digestive system, according to a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.
As the researchers noted in the study, chronic loneliness is a serious public health problem that is linked to a higher risk of illness and death. Wisdom, on the other hand — defined as “a multifaceted human characteristic” marked by positive emotions, contemplation, empathy and acts of compassion — is linked to better health and well-being, as shown by a number of studies. For the latest study, researchers were interested in exploring the link between these two traits and the makeup of the gut microbiome, or the collection of bacteria and other microorganisms that live in the digestive tract. The participants were 184 people ages 28 to 97, all of whom lived in their community (not in an institutionalized setting). Each completed a survey designed to assess measures including loneliness, wisdom, compassion, social support and social engagement.
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Wisdom linked to great microbiome diversity
The researchers collected stool samples from all participants and analyzed them using a technique called rRNA sequencing, which shows the levels of different species of bacteria. After correcting for age and body-mass index (BMI, a measure of body weight that takes height into account) — factors known to affect the microbiome — they found that greater microbiome diversity was linked to higher levels of wisdom, compassion, social support and social engagement, and lower levels of loneliness.
It isn’t known how, exactly, loneliness or wisdom might have the effects seen in the study — just as it isn’t well understood how these factors affect overall health in the ways that have been demonstrated in other studies. But chronic loneliness, they noted, “is considered to be biologically toxic,” and “is associated with changes in cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and immune function, including elevations in pro-inflammatory biomarkers.” Wisdom and social engagement, on the other hand, are linked to greater health and well-being across the board. And — probably not coincidentally — loneliness and wisdom tend to be negatively correlated, meaning that having one trait makes you less likely to have the other. Past studies “suggest strong genetic and biological components of both loneliness and wisdom,” the researchers wrote,” demonstrating that both traits are related to systems in the body, not just life events or situations.
These findings “may have implications for interventions to reduce loneliness and possibly its health-related adverse consequences,” the researchers concluded. “Future research should explore whether increasing compassion and wisdom may improve loneliness and overall well-being as well as microbial diversity.”
Want to learn more about the role of gut bacteria in health? Read “Diabetes and the Microbiome.”
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