When we come across the terms “wise old man” or “wise old woman,” it hardly ever occurs to us to correlate a person’s wisdom with their gut health! However, the gut-brain axis does exist. What’s more, there is mounting evidence that links wisdom and loneliness with gut microbiota.
The gut-brain axis is a complex network that links the cognitive as well as emotional centers of the brain with the intestine and its functions. Studies have associated gut microbiota with a variety of mental health disorders, notably, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Newer findings connect the gut microbiome to social behavior as well: The wider your social network, the more diverse your gut microbiota. In addition, the gut microbiome is associated with certain personality traits or psychological characteristics that are regarded as the biological components of wisdom. Furthermore, wiser individuals are less likely to fall prey to loneliness and conversely, lonelier individuals have a tendency to be less wise.
It is an intriguing thought, to say the least!
The Loneliness Effect vs. the Wisdom Effect
Loneliness may destabilize the gut microbiome, resulting in a drop in resistance and resilience to any disruptions that may occur as a result of stress, therefore rendering lonely people more prone to disease. The physiological effect of this can manifest as systemic inflammation. Less microbial diversity is an indicator of worse mental and physical health. It is also linked to obesity and inflammatory bowel disease on a physical level, and depressive disorders on a mental level.
On the other hand, the researchers found that wisdom and social support may protect the individual from such loneliness-derived instability of the gut microbiome by buffering against chronic stress effects.
Loneliness levels were higher in the older adults who were a part of this study, suggesting that older individuals were more vulnerable to destabilized health and disease states. This finding lines up with older studies and the declining health seen with old age.
Insufficient data about the participants’ social networks as well as the effects on mental health due to the COVID-19 pandemic-related quarantine or isolation is indeed a limitation of this study. Yet, the researchers uphold the idea that the right combination of compassion, social interaction, and wisdom has a protective effect against the loneliness-driven instability of the gut microbiome.
It was outside the scope of this exploratory study to examine and identify the underlying mechanisms that may possibly link loneliness, wisdom, compassion, and gut microbial diversity. However, the researchers could conclude that reduced microbial diversity was indeed associated with worse physical as well as mental health. A more diverse gut microbiome is inherently more capable of resisting infections as well as promoting stability from within.
Further studies on this theme can be designed to be larger in scope and examine the effect of factors such as diet or probiotics, which have a direct impact on the gut microbiome and its diversity. Changes in wisdom and loneliness characteristics can be examined in conjunction with alterations in the gut microbial composition plus metabolic, inflammatory, and neuroendocrine biomarkers. This will help expand our understanding of the gut-brain axis and how all these factors, along with psychosocial interventions, can help.