It is the classic high-school nightmare: All your friends are going to the mall, but you didn’t get the invite. With FOMO so strong it can feel like a kick in the gut, you’re left to sulk at home while they hit the Hot Topic. If this resonates with you, then feel vindicated — a study published in March suggests there’s biological truth to your Big Mood.
Tanya Nguyen, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and her team discovered this year that the diversity of the gut microbiome could both influence or be influenced by a specific emotional dynamic to do with loneliness.
The discovery — Nguyen’s team studied poop samples from 184 people, looking at how many different kinds of gut microbes each person had in their microbiome, which means the ecosystem of tiny organisms and viruses that exist in the gut. The study participants also answered questions from the researchers to measure their feelings of wisdom, compassion, loneliness, social support, and social engagement.
People with the most diverse microbiomes also tended to rate themselves high on the scale for compassion, social support, social engagement, and wisdom. In fact, the degree to which participants’ rated their compassion and wisdom was the greatest predictor of the degree of their microbial diversity.
Participants who rated themselves as high on the measure of loneliness also tended to have the most homogenous gut microbiomes — but this set of people also tended to be older than the average for the study group.
The study suggests lonely people “may be more susceptible to developing different diseases,” the study authors say, while having a strong social circle, as well as heightened senses of compassion and wisdom, may offer “protection against loneliness-related instability of the gut microbiome,” especially in older age.
Here's the background — We’ve all felt lonely at some point in our lives, but being alone doesn’t necessarily mean you are lonely. Research shows people who indulge in ‘me time’ are more creative, more productive, and experience more personal growth. Rather, loneliness is driven by an innate need for social connection in the face of isolation or a perceived lack of intimacy.
Over time, chronic loneliness can exacerbate or even cause mental health issues, including depression. Loneliness is also a risk factor for health conditions like chronic inflammation and even premature death.
Loneliness can also cloud your ability to find joy and meaning in your life. Wisdom, according to other research, may serve as a protective factor against loneliness. One neuroscience study, for instance, suggests there may be a neurobiological element to this: Brain activity for processing loneliness appears to be the complete opposite of how it processes wisdom, the study shows.
Why it matters — If there’s one grand takeaway from this study and the past research, it’s that the mind and body are in tune with one another in ways scientists are only starting to understand.
In this case, the direction of the connection between emotion and the gut is still unclear — do emotions influence the gut or vice versa? Or is it a two-way street?
“We cannot know for sure at this point, but my guess is that it is likely a bit of both,” Nguyen previously told Inverse.