Do Microbes Make Us Social?

In an effort to extend their territory, microbes may push us to socialize.

9/22/2021 2:17:00 AM

3 ways to optimize your microbes for a better social life, according to Psychobiotic

In an effort to extend their territory, microbes may push us to socialize.

Why would microbes want us to socialize? From an evolutionary perspective, anhost with a healthy gut microbiota should easily outcompete the dyspeptic wallflower in the reproductive game. A microbiota that encourages sociability would therefore have greater fitness.

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Microbes Can Also Be AntisocialAnother way that microbes affect sociability—albeit negatively—is through their ability to promote inflammation. When pathogens gain a foothold in the gut, they can make it “leaky.” Bacteria or toxins can then enter the bloodstream, where they get pumped to every organ in the body. This systemic inflammation can lead to sickness behavior, where you just want to crawl into bed with a cup of hot soup. This, clearly, does not promote socializing.

If the inflammation becomes chronic,depressionmay result—with a similar negative effect on party behavior. Thus, microbes have a remarkable ability to direct us to the sickroom or the ballroom.As well as systemic inflammation, disorders of the brain including autism, agoraphobia, and schizophrenia often lead to asocial or antisocial behavior. Evidence for a link between these conditions and the microbiota is growing. Targeting the microbiota with dietary changes and probiotics can improve the behavior of these individuals.

Although sociability may spread pathogens, it can also enrich the microbiota. A fundamental task of our microbiota is to protect us against pathogens. Pathogens are prolific, so we need to recruit our own bacteria to fight them. We literally could not survive without our home-grown microbes running interference for us. So it makes sense for us to accommodate them. They, in return, can pump out chemicals that improve our mood.

Look at it from the microbe's perspective: In order to expand their territory, they can nudge us to socialize more. What could be a better route of transmission than kisses, handshakes, or hugs? These behaviors seem designed specifically to transmit microbes!

Optimize Your Microbiota for a Better Social LifeYour gut microbes have 100 times more genes than you do. That means that the microbial metropolis in your gut represents the bulk of your genetic machinery. Perhaps it is time to treat it better. The good news is that you can change your microbiota. Your history is not your destiny.

In these pandemic days, socializing can be dicey. But there are other ways to promote a diverse microbiota:Eat a wide variety of veggies and fruit.Concentrate on foods that are high in fiber, like artichokes, beans, onions, and berries. Gut microbes love fiber, and in return, they will produce fatty acids like butyrate that can heal and nourish your gut lining.

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Eat fermented foods.There are tons of them to choose from, including yogurt, kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchee, pickles, and more. Choose ferments with live cultures and they will help you build a diverse microbiota.Exercise.Exercise affects the liver’s production of bile acids

, which are consumed by bile-loving gut microbes. They produce “secondary” bile acids, which kill pathogens and are consumed by beneficial microbes, spreading diversity throughout the microbiota. Even a brisk walk helps.As incredible as it seems, microbes may have influenced the evolution of our brains and our social behavior in an effort to propagate their own genes. For headstrong human hosts, that’s more than a little humbling. Still, humans are naturally gregarious, so it doesn’t take much of a push—and as long as we’re both on the same team, what do we have to lose?

ReferencesSherwin, Eoin, Seth R. Bordenstein, John L. Quinn, Timothy G. Dinan, and John F. Cryan. “Microbiota and the Social Brain.” Science 366, no. 6465 (November 1, 2019).Erdman, S. E., and T. Poutahidis. “Microbes and Oxytocin: Benefits for Host Physiology and Behavior.” International Review of Neurobiology 131 (2016): 91–126.

Vuong, Helen E., and Elaine Y. Hsiao. “Gut Microbes Join the Social Network.” Neuron 101, no. 2 (January 16, 2019): 196–98.Stilling, Roman M, Gerard M Moloney, Feargal J Ryan, Alan E Hoban, Thomaz FS Bastiaanssen, Fergus Shanahan, Gerard Clarke, Marcus J Claesson, Timothy G Dinan, and John F Cryan. “Social Interaction-Induced Activation of RNA Splicing in the Amygdala of Microbiome-Deficient Mice.” Edited by Elaine Y Hsiao. ELife 7 (May 29, 2018): e33070.

Read more: Psychology Today »

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