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Resilience is surprisingly linked to gut and brain health

Resilience, the ability to bounce back from adversity, isn’t just a mental trait. New research from UCLA Health suggests resilience is deeply connected to both our brain activity and the bustling ecosystem within our gut, the microbiome.

Gut-brain-resilience connection

Scientists have long known about the intricate link between the gut and the brain, often referred to as the “gut-brain axis.” This bidirectional communication system involves a complex interplay of nerves, hormones, and immune cells.

But what about resilience? Could our ability to cope with stress, a key component of resilience, be influenced by the gut microbiome? That’s the question a team of researchers at UCLA Health set out to answer.

Brain during resilience

In a recent study, the researchers surveyed 116 people about their resilience, examining factors like trust in one’s instincts and acceptance of change. They also conducted MRI scans to analyze brain activity and collected stool samples to assess gut microbiome composition.

“If we can identify what a healthy resilient brain and microbiome look like, then we can develop targeted interventions to those areas to reduce stress,” said Dr. Arpana Gupta, the study’s senior author and co-director of the UCLA Goodman-Luskin Microbiome Center.

The results were fascinating. Individuals with high resilience scores showed distinct patterns of brain activity, with heightened activity in regions associated with emotional regulation and cognition.

In essence, resilient individuals seem to have better “brakes” on their emotional responses to stress, preventing them from spiraling into anxiety or catastrophizing. 

“But the highly resilient individuals in the study were found to be better at regulating their emotions, less likely to catastrophize, and keep a level head,” noted Desiree Delgadillo, one of the study’s lead authors.

Resilient gut: A thriving ecosystem

The surprises didn’t stop there. The researchers also found that the gut microbiomes of highly resilient individuals were different.

People with high resilience had microbiomes that produced brain metabolites and exhibited gene activity associated with low inflammation and a strong, healthy gut barrier.

The gut barrier, a layer of cells lining the intestines, acts as a gatekeeper, controlling what enters the body from the gut. A weakened gut barrier, often called “leaky gut,” has been linked to various health problems, including inflammation and impaired nutrient absorption.

The fact that a strong gut barrier was associated with high resilience was a significant discovery, suggesting a whole-body connection to this critical trait.

Resilience: A whole-body phenomenon

“Resilience truly is a whole-body phenomenon that not only affects your brain but also your microbiome and what metabolites that it is producing,” said Dr. Gupta.

These findings open up a whole new avenue for understanding and potentially enhancing resilience and its connection to gut and brain.

“We have this whole community of microbes in our gut that exudes these therapeutic properties and biochemicals, so I’m looking forward to building upon this research,” stated Delgadillo, the postdoctoral researcher, is excited about the future of this research.

The team’s future research will delve deeper into this connection, exploring whether interventions to boost resilience can actually change brain and gut microbiome activity. If so, this could lead to novel treatments that target both the brain and the gut, potentially preventing diseases linked to chronic stress.

“We could have treatments that target both the brain and the gut that can maybe one day prevent disease,” Gupta said.

Resilience is more than meets the eye

The research broadens the definition of resilience beyond psychological factors, revealing a significant physiological component linked to gut health. 

The study indicates that resilience is a multi-faceted trait influenced by both the brain’s emotional regulation processes and the gut microbiome’s composition and activity. 

While the exact mechanisms underlying this gut-brain-resilience connection remain to be fully elucidated, the findings offer promising implications for developing novel interventions to enhance resilience. 

By focusing on strategies that promote both mental well-being and a healthy gut microbiome, individuals may be able to cultivate greater resilience, enabling them to cope more effectively with stress and adversity. 

This holistic approach to resilience recognizes the interconnectedness of mind and body, highlighting the importance of addressing both mental and physical health in order to achieve optimal well-being and adaptability in the face of life’s challenges.

The study is published in the journal Nature Mental Health.


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