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Isolated microbiome; is this a thing, or just some woo-woo idea of mine?
August 14, 2014 5:35 PM   Subscribe

Is there any theory or study that would justify (or falsify) the idea I currently suffer from a lack of - for want of a better term - cootie biodiversity? Am I less healthy because my microbiome has been turned into a monoculture?

OK, so bear with me on this one.
We are each of us a little forested planet of our own, with other species that live in and on us; our guts are full of bacteria good and bad, our skin and hair are awash in little animals, fungi and other flora good and bad, etc. This is an established concept, as far as I can tell.

Personally, I've been socially isolated for a while - I live alone, don't date, etc. I don't think I've had any physical interpersonal contact other than what might occur on public transportation for like, a year. And I'm noticing that I've become more prone to digestive issues, skin conditions, etc recently and just generally less physically healthy. I'm actually more emotionally healthy than I've been in quite a while, and I 'feel' great - but physically it's like Ive got some vitamin deficit or something.

Is there any theory or study that would justify (or falsify) the idea I have that at least part of this is due to a lack of - for want of a better term - biodiversity? Am I less healthy because my microbiome has been turned into a monoculture?

I started thinking of this when asked about the kind of thing I missed from romantic relationships and living with people, and one thing that came up for me was "this pillow smells like Jane" or even "I can still smell Jane on me from last night". I think of this kind of thing, especially the second one (being based on um, prolonged skin-to-skin exposure / transfer) with a weird science nerdy romanticism - "We smell the way we do because of our microbiomes, and now I smell a bit like you - we've colonized each other! Our cooties have expanded their territories! Your kangaroos have migrated to my veldt and my zebras are in your outback!"

But now not being involved in that kind of thing anymore, I'm wondering if there's anything to an idea of health benefits to exposure to 'alien' microflora/fauna. Or maybe just the health detriments of -lack- of exposure?

I'd say that it's not unreasonable to theorize that our health is improved by being challenged occasionally. And maybe even to the popular trope that 'a little dirt is good for ya', and that things like some allergies and environmental sensitivities might be due to the relative sterility of modern living - our bodies have evolved to defend against 'invaders', and with nothing to fight off, that mechanism end of as auto-immune reactions, attacking itself for lack of opposition from elsewhere.

I may be totally making this up as a crackpot theory of my own. Or maybe this is something that's actually been studied? Any Mefite input would be appreciated, from actual science, down to anecdata - "Oh yeah, I'm an _______ and me and my colleagues can totally tell when someone's been living alone for a long time. It's not a hygiene thing at all really, which is what I thought when I started; but yeah, we can totally point out the lonely widow by smell" or whatever.
posted by bartleby to Health & Fitness (7 answers total)
 
Personally, I've been socially isolated for a while - I live alone, don't date, etc.

And I'm noticing that I've become more prone to digestive issues, skin conditions, etc recently and just generally less physically healthy. I'm actually more emotionally healthy than I've been in quite a while, and I 'feel' great - but physically it's like Ive got some vitamin deficit or something.


Depression takes weird forms sometimes.

We're generally social animals that need physical interaction (like hugs!).

Try taking up a hobby that has other people in it. Book club. Knitting Circle. Rock climbing. Community Gardening. Kickball.

Even if your crackpot theory is right, mixing with other folk should help alleviate it.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:15 PM on August 14


No. Your microbiome is fueled by food, bacteria on public transportation etc. It is in no way lacking for your lack of skin to skin contact. Bacteria and fungi are on everything you touch and even the wind. I agree with leotrotsky. This sounds much more like social isolation angst. But if you're in doubt, have some yogurt.
posted by Kalmya at 6:44 PM on August 14


There's been some studies on the microbiome passed down that relate to vaginal/cesarian delivery from your mother i think, but i can't cite them right now. I haven't heard of any articles/studies about a current partner. (other than people catching stinky armpits from using their partners deodorant, which i read about somewhere unacademic).
posted by TheAdamist at 6:47 PM on August 14




There have been studies about how the bacteria colonies in your gut spread to other people you live with so that you eventually all have similar ones. (Generally I think it's through faeces particles in the bathroom, ick). I think some scientists are making connections between that and why obesity seems to be "catching" among people who spend a lot of time together. And they suspect there are all sorts of effects we don't know about. So I think there might be some validity to your idea that living alone has an effect on your microbiome. But I don't know of any support for your idea that "challenging" it is a good thing, or that lacking cross-pollination with others' microbiomes is going to cause health symptoms.

Still, contact with others can only be a good thing. I think it will be more beneficial in many ways if you do that in some socially accepted way, though, rather than going around licking strangers' toothbrushes or something...
posted by lollusc at 8:25 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Here is an interesting article from the NYT about advances in research on people's microbiomes.
posted by lollusc at 8:29 PM on August 14


As a microbiologist (and not an MD) I'd agree with leotrotsky that getting out and seeing people will probably make you feel better, regardless of what your gut flora thinks. The microbiome is a hot topic, and a lot of the specifics have yet to be figured out. As a (theoretically) normal adult, who comes into close contact with lots of people on the subway, you probably have more than enough opportunities to encounter all sorts of novel bugs.

A huge factor that can decrease/mess up your cootie biodiversity is antibiotics. This is a big one. Also, if you were recently born by Cesarian, especially if you are put into a sterile bubble immediately after.

Getting an infection, which can wipe out lots of the other cooties. Some infections can exacerbate depression, but that's also a new field, and I'm not sure how much is actually being incorporated into patient care.
posted by fermezporte at 2:44 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]


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