Craving Nature? Your Gut Microbiome Might Be Responsible

These hikers's gut microbes are running the show.
These hikers's gut microbes are running the show.
Loren Kerns, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

After a few months spent indoors with only your family pod for company, you might be craving fresh air, birdsong, and the scent of a pine forest. A new theory called "the Lovebug Effect" suggests there may be a backseat driver in our daydreams of nature holidays and woodland strolls: the gut microbiome.

Humans have an innate tendency to seek out and spend time in natural environments, but we’re still not really sure why. A new paper published in the journal Science of The Total Environment suggests that our thirst for nature could be driven by microscopic life lurking in the deepest, darkest crevices of the gut.

“While it seems clear that we benefit from having the drive to spend time in nature, the exact reasons behind nature-seeking behavior haven’t been resolved,” senior author Martin Breed, a lecturer in biology at Flinders University, tells Mental Floss. “The Lovebug Effect is a conceptual piece that addresses this by drawing from recent work on how microbes influence behavior.”

The human gut is home to trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Collectively, these microbes make up the gut microbiome, which orchestrates the homeostatic harmony between functions essential to health. Gut-brain communication mediates metabolism, immune system function, and appetite, and could even explain that divine lurch of butterflies in your stomach. The Lovebug Effect theorizes that gut-brain communication also drives nature-seeking behaviors.

“Microbes in a gut environment that are starved of contact with environmental microbiota might be hijacking neural pathways between the brain and gut to drive nature-seeking behavior,” first author Jake Robinson, an ecologist and planetary health researcher at Sheffield University, tells Mental Floss. In other words, your gut microbes are yearning for their outdoor counterparts—and telling your brain to go find them.

There’s now pretty robust evidence from animal studies that microbes can intercept gut-brain crosstalk by activating the vagus nerve and sympathetic neurons through their release of key neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. Breed says that when the microbiome is lacking in diversity, the chemicals it releases might have an effect on the brain that manifests as a thirst for nature.

Once we're immersed in the great outdoors, we’re literally bombarded by environmental microbiota—a thimble-full of soil contains billions of microbes, far more than there are humans on planet Earth. According to the Lovebug Effect, this abundance of environmental microbiota means our gut microbiome has countless choices when it comes to selecting which microbes to propagate.

And the sensations we experience when immersed in nature offer plenty reason to return. Who doesn’t love the smell of fresh rain? This enticing scent, petrichor, is produced when rain hits bacterial spores in the soil. Breed and Robinson claim that these kinds of sensory preferences could be byproducts of an ancient nature connectedness, and evidence for our co-evolution alongside the microbiome.

Unlike behavior-altering parasites that usually end up killing zombified host animals, gut microbes that stimulate nature-seeking behaviors would also benefit the human host.

Hands-on exposure to soil microbes may boost the immune system, and fresh country air offers a microbial diversity that avoids the accumulation of harmful microbes. Mental health might also benefit; gut microbiome imbalances have been linked to psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety.

When starved of natural environments, however, the gut microbiome finds a way to cope. Marco Candela, an associate professor at the University of Bologna, found that gut microbiome imbalances in the isolated crew of the Mars voyage simulation, Mars500, were normalized through a process of “microbial adaptation.” “Reductions in the butyrate-producing bacterium Faecalibacterium prausnitzii were compensated by increases in other butyrate-producing microorganisms,” Candela tells Mental Floss. This means that microbes readily replace the functions of dwindling ones.

Another open question is how altering host behavior would benefit the gut microbiome when the microbes within are competing with each other. “Most animal studies have shown the effect of a single microorganism on behavior, but the gut microbiota is an ecosystem,” Candela says. “It’s a fascinating topic, but needs more confirmation in humans.”

To demonstrate whether the Lovebug Effect is more than speculation, researchers will likely have to examine the relationship between nature connectedness and microbial diversity, and pinpoint the mechanisms underlying microbiome behavioral control.

Other than stimulating curiosity, the Lovebug Effect serves to remind us of our deep-seated connection with the natural world—and that it’s in our best interests to conserve it.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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Late MythBusters Star Grant Imahara Honored With New STEAM Foundation

Grant Imahara attends San Diego Comic-Con
Grant Imahara attends San Diego Comic-Con
Genevieve via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Fans of MythBusters and White Rabbit Project host Grant Imahara were saddened to hear of his passing due to a brain aneurysm in July 2020 at the age of 49. Imahara, a graduate of the University of Southern California, used the television medium to share his love of science and engineering. Now, his passion for education will continue via an educational foundation developed in his name.

The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation was announced Thursday, October 23, 2020 by family and friends on what would have been Imahara’s 50th birthday. The Foundation will provide mentorships, grants, and scholarships that will allow students from diverse backgrounds access to STEAM education, which places an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. (Formerly referred to as STEM, the “A” for art was added more recently.)

Imahara had a history of aiding students. While working at Industrial Light and Magic in the early 2000s, he mentored the robotics team at Richmond High School to prepare for the international FIRST Robotics Competition. Whether he was working on television or behind-the-scenes on movies like the Star Wars prequels and The Matrix sequels, Imahara always found time to promote and encourage young engineering talent.

The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation’s founding board members include Imahara’s mother, Carolyn Imahara, and close friends Don Bies, Anna Bies, Edward Chin, Fon H. Davis, Coya Elliott, and Ioanna Stergiades.

“There are many students, like my son Grant, who need the balance of the technical and the creative, and this is what STEAM is all about,” Carolyn Imahara said in a statement. “I’m so proud of my son’s career, but I’m equally proud of the work he did mentoring students. He would be thrilled that we plan to continue this, plus much more, through The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation.”

Imahara friend Wade Bick is also launching an effort in concert with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering to name a study lounge after Imahara. Donations can be made here.

You can find out more about the foundation, and make a donation, on its website.