Loneliness & Reduced Fibre Compound Risk of Illness

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Whilst it may seem a strange combination of subjects, there is a connection. For people to maintain social engagement and interaction where ‘belonging’ is a natural and desired outcome there needs to be some cohesion, a ‘sticky’ thing that provides the glue that we require and need for the generation of health and contentment. Fibre derived from our diet in the form of fermentable compounds fills the same role for our dominant occupying population, who are also dependent on communication, interaction and social bonding – yes, the bacteria, viruses and other organisms residing in your gut.

Yet it appears that the sticky options for achieving this in both contexts are decreasing, and with this change in availability and applicability there has also been a decline in the relevant community’s health, function and capacity for change. It seems we and our co-inhabitants need a vital and cooperative community to achieve optimal function. Yet, you will be only too aware of the pervasive and intrusive shift in communication mediums over the last 20 years – and whilst there is a growing body of people raising the implications of this on the diminishing social development and human health in advanced societies others are getting to work to show how to reverse the trend.

What I am suggesting is that if you and your clients focus only on the tangible elements of nutrients, diet, exercise, sunlight and sleep without addressing emotional health and this includes loneliness then they may not be able to break their pattern of behaviour, and or be able to gain all benefits required to reverse their decline.

It’s important to note that being alone isn’t the same as feeling lonely. As any introvert knows, it’s possible to be in one’s own company and feel perfectly fine, but it’s equally possible to be in a room full of people and feel terribly lonely. Its not necessarily about being surrounded by people, but rather, having trusted friends to confide in, to feel free to “be themselves” around.

A famous paper published in PLOS Medicine in 2010 reviewed 148 studies, involving 300,000 people, and discovered that those with strong social relationships had a 50% lower chance of death across the average study period (7.5 years) than those with weak connections. “The magnitude of this effect,” the paper reports, “is comparable with quitting smoking.” Another celebrated study in 1945 showed that children in orphanages died through lack of human contact. Now we know that the same thing can apply to all of us.

This may be manageable on a 1-1 basis but what evidence is there that this can be managed at scale? Early data from a study conducted in the Somerset village of Frome shows some impressive indications. Namely that when isolated people who have health problems are supported by community groups and volunteers, the number of emergency admissions to hospital falls impressively. While across the whole of Somerset emergency hospital admissions rose by 29% during the three years of the study, in Frome they fell by 17%. Julian Abel, a consultant physician in palliative care and lead author of the draft paper, remarks: “No other interventions on record have reduced emergency admissions across a population.”

Yet there is another element to this story that also needs to be explored, for whilst cytokines released during loneliness and their intimate relationship with mood and depression have been making headlines recently – albeit the knowledge has been developing for 20 years – the reasons for increased inflammatory tone extends beyond the management of loneliness between humans.

As you know adverse alterations in peoples’ gut microbiota have been correlated with almost every known immunological disease, but in most cases, it still remains unclear whether these changes are a cause or effect of the disease or merely a reflection of epidemiological differences between groups. I propose the loss of fermentable fibre in people’s diet has changed the dialogue present in the language used between bacteria known as quorum sensing and that absence or alteration of this bacterial glue, just as with humans, leads to a discordant, socially isolated group of biota with subsequent loss of anti-inflammatory management skills.

Fibre in its various forms is found in fruits, legumes, vegetables, and whole grains. So-called Western diets, which are high in fats and sugars but low in fibre, have been linked to an increased risk of inappropriate inflammation and associated dysbiosis. Western population consumption of fibre has dropped precipitously in the last 2 decades to around 12gms daily, compared to the Hadza Tribe who eat over 100gms which has led to changes in species richness, diversity and mucous thickness which recent mice studies confirms happens within just a few days when on a Western diet. Mucins you see are an essential barrier to prevent bacteria binding to the epithelial tissue, triggering inflammation and it appears our reduced fibre intake may be a driving force equivalent to loneliness in promotion of inflammation and associated health changes.

Interestingly in the mouse models, employed to demonstrate this, simply replacing fibre, even large quantities of inulin was not enough on its own to correct the changes, suggesting that additional bacteria may also need to be added to recover eubiois and reduce inflammation. Something that challenges the notion that prebiotics are adequate on their own for restoration of dysbiosis.

So, it seems clear that creating opportunity for meaningful social support and social engagement for us and our microbial partners is necessary to ensure belonging, function and improved health – maybe the creation of local social groups with high fermentable fibre rich, gluten free cakes is the way forward – what do you think?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed