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Physical Contact Protects Your Gut Health

S u m m a r y :
Physical contact—hugging—is good for your gut health, says new study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology. The findings are based on the red-bellied lemur, an animal that lives in close social groups.

Humans, Huddle Together!

Humans need human contact—both emotional and physical—and a new research drives this point home further. Conducted by an international team of investigators, the study links huddling and touch with gut bacteria in red-bellied lemurs, findings that are said to have implications for human health. The endeavour started as an attempt to gain a better understanding of the diversity characterising the gut microbiome of the animal.

Red-bellied lemur. Photo Credits: ©noisytoy.net

How Physical Contact is Linked with Healthy Gut

The gut microbiome (of animals and humans) comprises bacteria that contribute to digestion, and the protection from harmful microbes, thereby building and boosting immunity; it is to be noted that different individuals will have a different composition of the microbes, depending on a number of factors, from age to diet. This system goes beyond the individual level for closely-knit social groups like red-bellied lemurs, explains lead author Aura Raulo. These animals are known for their high frequency of physical contact. They live in small family groups within which they enjoy close relationships, spending lots of time with each other, with much physical contact, a trait that allows for the spread of both good and bad microbes among them, leading to a synchronised microbiome. Given that microbes adjusts immunity, this process caters cooperative immunity whereby the sharing of “microbial allies and enemies makes infections by opportunist pathogens less likely,” says Raulo. The findings do, indeed, show that the lemurs, generally, displayed similar gut microbiomes, and those within the same social groups had more similar gut bacteria than with their other friends.

Are Humans the Same?

Drawing a parallel to human, Raulo explains that the interaction of people with different microbiomes leads to a transfer of their bacteria through touch. This sharing process can be beneficial for their health, but only if the guts of the people are compatible with one another: the author mentions an example of someone having bacteria that might be advantageous for him for his specific symbiotic gut community, but harmful to another person not used to these microbes.

According to the researchers, a social group sharing similar microbiomes might have a positive impact on health by creating a harmony between immune systems, and preventing individuals from being infected with dangerous microbes.

Your Gut Knows Your Companions

Another interesting finding is the possibility that information about gut bacteria might be helpful to reconstruct someone’s social network, gien that social bonds have been linked with gut microbiota. This could answer question like who has been in the company of whom.

“The gut microbiome of red-bellied lemurs most closely resembles that of their group members. They are extremely cohesive and in contact a great deal, and rarely if ever interact with other groups, so this makes sense,” explains co-senior author Andrea Baden. “This explains a great deal of individual variation, but genetic kinship might explain some as well. We know that infants inherit a suite of microbes from their mother, during birth, for example. Since red-bellied lemurs leave their natal groups to form their own groups when they become adults, they might retain some bacteria from their natal family group. We can trace that by looking at kin relationships in the population, and similarity of the gut microbiome in kin.”

Photo Credits of the red-bellied lemur ‘scent-marking’ branches: Rachel Kramer; via Wikimedia Commons.

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