Emotional wellbeing linked to women's gut health

A recent study linked bacteria in our gut to positive emotions like happiness and hopefulness and healthier emotion management skills. “The gut contains trillions of microorganisms collectively known as the gut microbiome. Many studies have shown that disturbance in the gut microbiome can affect the gut-brain axis and lead to various health problems, including anxiety, depression, and even neurological disorders,” said coauthor Yang-Yu Liu, PhD, an associate scientist in the Brigham and Women's Hospital's Channing Division of Network Medicine and an associate professor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School.

“This interaction likely flows both ways — the brain can impact the gut, and the gut can impact the brain. The emotions that we have and how we manage them could affect the gut microbiome, and the microbiome may also influence how we feel," added first author Shanlin Ke, PhD. The gut-brain axis might affect physical health, as well.

The study included more than 200 women from the Mind-Body Study, a sub-study of the Nurses’ Health Study II. These middle-aged, mostly white women filled out a survey that asked about their feelings in the last 30 days – i.e., positive (feeling happy or hopeful about the future) or negative (feeling sad, afraid, worried, restless, hopeless, depressed, or lonely) emotions.

The survey also assessed how they handled their emotions - reframing the situation to see it in a more positive light (cognitive reappraisal) or holding back from expressing their negative emotions (suppression).

Three months after answering the survey, the women provided stool samples. The team compared the results from the microbial analysis to the survey responses about emotions and ways of managing them to look for connections.

“Some of the species that popped up in the analysis were previously linked with poor health outcomes, including schizophrenia and cardiovascular diseases,” Guimond said. ”These links between emotion regulation and the gut microbiome could affect physical health outcomes and explain how emotions influence health.”

People who suppressed their emotions had a less diverse gut microbiome, and those who reported happier feelings had lower levels of Firmicutes bacterium CAG 94 and Ruminococcaceae bacterium D16. On the other hand, people who had more negative emotions had more of these bacteria, as well as fewer metabolism-related actions in the gut.

While the study does not prove cause and effect, the connection provides one more reason to encourage healthy eating and help constituents with gut problems to choose an appropriate diet. Referral to a nutrition specialist may be advisable in some cases.

SOURCES: Brigham and Women’s Hospital (April 27, 2023)