Early-life stress and the gut microbiome: A comprehensive population-based investigation

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Early-life stress (ELS) has been robustly associated with a range of poor mental and physical health outcomes. Recent studies implicate the gut microbiome in stress-related mental, cardio-metabolic and immune health problems, but research on humans is scarce and thus far often based on small, selected samples, often using retrospective reports of ELS. We examined associations between ELS and the human gut microbiome in a large, population-based study of children. ELS was measured prospectively from birth to 10 years of age in 2,004 children from the Generation R Study. We studied overall ELS, as well as unique effects of five different ELS domains, including life events, contextual risk, parental risk, interpersonal risk, and direct victimization. Stool microbiome was assessed using 16S rRNA sequencing at age 10 years and data were analyzed at multiple levels (i.e. α- and β-diversity indices, individual genera and predicted functional pathways). In addition, we explored potential mediators of ELS-microbiome associations, including diet at age 8 and body mass index at 10 years. While no associations were observed between overall ELS (composite score of five domains) and the microbiome after multiple testing correction, contextual risk – a specific ELS domain related to socio-economic stress, including risk factors such as financial difficulties and low maternal education – was significantly associated with microbiome variability. This ELS domain was associated with lower α-diversity, with β-diversity, and with predicted functional pathways involved, amongst others, in tryptophan biosynthesis. These associations were in part mediated by overall diet quality, a pro-inflammatory diet, fiber intake, and body mass index (BMI). These results suggest that stress related to socio-economic adversity – but not overall early life stress – is associated with a less diverse microbiome in the general population, and that this association may in part be explained by poorer diet and higher BMI. Future research is needed to test causality and to establish whether modifiable factors such as diet could be used to mitigate the negative effects of socio-economic adversity on the microbiome and related health consequences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)117-127
Number of pages11
JournalBrain, Behavior, and Immunity
Publication statusPublished - May 2024

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