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Gut Feelings: The Gut Foundation


In the inner sanctum of our colon exists a wonderfully complicated eco system, which is is a large community of living organisms, known as our microbiome. The Gut Foundation’s General Manager Margaret Fitzgerald tells us about the relationship between the gut biome, the vagus nerve and the brain, and why we should make healthier food choices.

 

 

The molecular biologist Joshua Lederberg explains it “as all the microorganisms, bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi, and their collective genetic material present in the gastrointestinal tract.” In reality, there is a vast city of trillions of little creatures at work down there in your gut.

Through research our scientists and health professionals now know a lot more about our microbiome than we used to.

They know, for example, that it can regulate your body weight, and that it not only protects your gut from invaders but also regulates your entire immune system. They also know that our biome takes food our body can’t digest and turns it into hormones and other chemicals.

New research in the last five years has shown that there is a strong link between our gut biome and our immune system and nervous system, including the brain.

As microbes in our gut digest our food they make tiny parcels called short chain fatty acids. These trigger messages which travel to the brain via the long vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is known as the “wandering nerve” because it has multiple branches that diverge from two thick stems rooted in the cerebellum and brainstem that wander to the lowest viscera of your abdomen touching your heart and most major organs along the way. Vagus means “wandering” in Latin. The words vagabond, vague and vagrant are all derived from the same Latin root.

I really enjoyed a recent trip to Australia where I attended a new exhibition at the Melbourne Museum which collaborated with researchers from Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre. The exhibition, titled ‘Gut Feelings: Your Mind, Your Microbes’, explored the connection between our brains and our guts. One of the wonderful headlines used to engage their audience was “eating for trillions”.

This was followed up with the following “Your gut is awash with microbe including helpful bacteria, fungi, viruses and more. They are with you always. These trillions of friends are constantly digesting food, making nutrients and talking to your body. In return, you provide the perfect home for them. When you eat, they eat, so what you eat is important. You encourage the good microbes to flourish and the bad ones to die off, simply by eating well. It’s up to you to keep them in balance.”

I am now even more aware of the importance of making healthy food choices to encourage the population of good ones to amass and shut out the unhealthy ones.

Here in Canterbury we have medical scientists working on understanding more and more about the gut and you can help them.

Donate to gut research and you are ensuring our medical and scientific experts learn more and more about helping you to keep a healthy body through a healthy gut biome. www.thegut.org.nz/get-involved/donations/

 

 


 

The gut/brain connection


Did you know that up to 95 percent of serotonin and 50 percent of dopamine – vital brain chemicals which impact our happiness, wellbeing, reward and motivation – is made in the gut?

 

 

Leading Clinical Nutritionist Ben Warren is touring the country this month, helping Kiwis understand the strong link between what they eat and how they feel. We caught up with Ben about the latest research into our interlinked gut-brain connection and how nourishing your gut can create a more calm, joyful and peaceful mind.

Can you tell us a bit about the connection between gut health and mental health?
We’ve probably all experienced a gut feeling, tummy in knots, or butterflies. And the research is starting to show that this is more than ‘just a feeling’. In fact, it turns out that the gut might actually be our ‘second brain’ after all, and its health can impact our emotions and mental wellbeing.

Not only is the brain talking to the gut and the rest of the body, but it goes the other way too. The gut is talking to the brain which impacts how we think and feel on a daily level.

This feedback loop is known as the gut brain axis – a two-way communication pathway. The gut talks to the brain in a number of ways – through the central nervous system, the autonomic nervous system, through neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine and via the immune system.

At the core of this is the microbiota, the trillions of bacteria and organisms that live synergistically with us. Research is looking heavily at these mind-altering microorganisms and the impact of the gut microbiota on brain and behaviour, specifically looking at emotions and the mechanisms of things such as probiotics and fermented foods and their ability to control and change how we think and feel; which makes supporting your gut an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to creating mental wellness.


Kombucha is being touted as the hottest thing for gut health at the moment, how effective is kombucha and other fermented foods at restoring gut health?
While it’s early days for the research on these traditional foods, the research is currently pointing towards having a broader, wider, deeper, more diverse microbiome (primarily the organisms living in our gut – although we have them elsewhere too) – as being associated with better gut health and also our whole body health too. Traditionally fermented foods can help contribute to this broader, wider, more diverse microbiome.

In an article published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology titled, ‘Fermented foods, microbiota and mental health: ancient practice meets nutritional psychiatry’ (2014), they answered this exact question. The take home message? Yes, fermented foods are beneficial, not only to our physical health but also to our mental health due to their ability to mitigate inflammation and oxidative stress. In another study looking at neuroticism and social anxiety, a higher frequency of fermented food consumption was associated with fewer symptoms of social anxiety, suggesting that fermented foods containing probiotics may serve as a low-risk intervention for reducing social anxiety.

When it comes to kombucha, I haven’t seen any specific research. However, if made traditionally as a fermented tea, it should contain strains of friendly bacteria as well as the beneficial metabolic byproducts of bacteria fermentation. I do have concerns with the commercialisation of kombucha, particularly how they are making it. They are sometimes using a lot of sugar and not letting it naturally ferment or carbonate, instead carbonating artificially like a regular fizzy drink. I would stick to trusted brands – the ones I go for are New Leaf, Organic Mechanic and Good Buzz.


What’s the difference between probiotics and prebiotics, and how critical are these to our gut health?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that have been shown to have a known benefit to human health, whereas prebiotics are the food that the beneficial bacteria need to survive. Like us, bacteria need food to live!

Our body is home to trillions of bacteria, and it is these bacteria that digest key aspects of our food to synthesise neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine and their precursors. In fact, up to 95 percent of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut by the microbiome. Adding in probiotics (as a supplement or naturally through fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha or coconut yoghurt) is a great way to nourish your gut health back into balance by adding in a diverse range of beneficial bacteria.

We can support our bacteria by eating prebiotic-rich foods such as beans, legumes, bananas, raw onion or raw garlic. Eating a variety of vegetables will support diversity as different foods feed different types of bacteria.


How are antibiotics and their overuse contributing to poor gut health?
There is good research indicating that overuse of antibiotics is contributing to poor gut health. However, I’m not suggesting that you don’t take antibiotics, as they can be lifesaving in certain situations! Rather, I’d recommend taking a high-quality probiotic alongside the antibiotics and consuming fermented foods to minimise the impact on the microbiome.


Are supplements all they’ve cracked up to be and what should we be supplementing?
Absolutely, the increase in research on the benefits of probiotics for human health has been exponential over the last 20 years. Researchers are now isolating specific strains that impact mood, for example in one study looking at Bacillus coagulans(MTCC5856) on major depression with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the improvement in depression and IBS symptoms was statistically significant and clinically meaningful. In another study looking at Lactobacillus helviticus and Bifido bactaterium longum taken for 30 days they found it decreased global scores of anxiety and depression. It’s very early days in the research currently and there’s a long way to go, but there’s definitely enough research to justify their use.


What are some of your key tips for fueling our modern day lives to get best gut – and brain – health outcomes?
• Eat a wholefood diet focusing on a variety of vegetables
• Take a high-quality probiotic with a wide variety of proven strains
• Minimise sugars and artificial sweeteners
• Consume fermented foods as part of your daily food intake
• Consume chicken and bone broths to support gut healing
• Daily movement or exercise can help to modulate the biome by 20 percent!

 

 


 

 

Environmental Eating


As food moves to the forefront of sustainability, we’re starting to look more critically at not just the nutritional content of our foodie buys, but their overall environmental impact too.

 

 

With our food – from what we eat to how it is grown – accounting for more carbon emissions than transport, our culinary innovators globally have been working tirelessly to play their part in rectifying industry-wide issues and seeking a more sustainable path.

We’ve already seen numerous operators removing single-use plastics, and this year we can expect to see a ton of new plant-based innovations focusing on sustainability, particularly highlighting nuts, seeds, fruit, veggies and even algae! Here are some of our favourites.

 

 

  1. ‘Ugly’ produce: Supermarkets and businesses aiming to reduce food waste are looking for different ways to utilise so-called ‘ugly’ produce – basically fruit and vegetables that aren’t ‘ready for prime time’. UK-based supermarket Tesco and US-based retailer Good Use have launched cold-pressed juices which utilise oddly shaped produce that would otherwise be destined for landfill, and locally, our very own Countdown has followed suit with The Odd Bunch, an initiative that packages ‘funny looking’ fruit and veggies at cheap prices – perfect for smoothies, soups and more!

  2. Seed butters: All hail the new nut butter! Perfect for people with nut allergies, seed butters are full to the brim with unsaturated fat, protein and tons of vitamins and minerals – plus they utilise the part of the fruit/vegetable that is commonly discarded. We’re seeing a bunch of creamy ‘butters’ made from every seed imaginable; pumpkin, sesame, poppy, sunflower, hemp – even watermelon!

  3. Essential oils: EPA and DHA are the primary omega 3s needed to support heart, brain, eye and maternal health, and this year they’re on the rise in the food and supplement arena, as is CBD (a non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant) oil. Particularly gaining traction amongst vegans and vegetarians is algae oil, which is slowly appearing as the new superfood oil due to being a huge source of DHA – one tablespoon of algae oil packs the same amount of omega 3s as one whole avocado! As it is flavourless, it makes for a nutritious substitute for vegetable cooking oils like canola or sunflower.

  4. Blended burgers: The newest eco-food ‘blend trend’ is projected to mushroom this year, with chefs and food producers alike beginning to combine veggies and grains – such as lentils, mushrooms and quinoa – with meat for burgers that strike that perfect mark between plant-based and meat, offering non-vegetarians a tasty way to eat more plants. Blended burgers are flavourful, healthy and sustainable – the blended burger has a significantly smaller carbon footprint than a patty made of 100 percent meat. In 2018, more than 350 restaurants in the US served their take on the blended burger – and this movement is expected to grow far and wide across the planet.

  5. Gut health: A newfound appreciation for digestive and gut health is emerging, as we become increasingly aware of the powerful role the microbiome plays in both our physical and mental health and wellness. But it’s not probiotic pills that will be in the limelight this year, rather it’s foods and drinks jam-packed with pre- and pro-biotics that are expected to escalate in popularity – particularly items with ‘shelf-stable probiotics’, like pastas and breakfast foods (Kellogg’s is already introducing a new line of pre- and pro-biotic cereals!). Fermented foods full of these necessary bacteria (kimchi, kombucha, kefir and sauerkraut) are predicted to continue to make their well-deserved appearance on supermarket shelves over the next year.

 


 

The Gut Foundation

Getting to the Guts of the matter! The Gut Foundation


Getting to the Guts of the matter!

 

The Gut Foundation

 

New research is particularly important to Canterbury and better tools for diagnosis are urgently required. The Gut Foundation (previously the Bowel and Liver Trust), is aiming to provide support to Teagan Hoskin, a Post Doctoral Fellow at the University of Otago, Christchurch.

Teagan has extensive experience working in the field of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) research, having previously coordinated a large study which recruited 500 patients. Her passion for improving health outcomes for people living with IBD stems from witnessing her younger brother’s struggle with this debilitating disease for more than 20 years.

 

The Gut Foundation has a long-standing interest in supporting research in the field of IBD, previously funding projects assessing IBD incidence rates in Canterbury. A study funded by the trust in 2004 showed that Canterbury has one of the highest incidence rates of Crohn’s Disease (CD) worldwide. Strikingly, a more recently funded study in 2014 indicated that the number of patients diagnosed with CD had increased by 50 percent. This highlights the importance of continued research in this field and underpins our ongoing commitment to support this vital work.

Currently, colonoscopy with biopsy is thought to be the best method for evaluating inflammation location, extent and severity. However, the invasiveness of endoscopic examinations and unpleasant bowel preparation treatments is a strong drawback for this procedure, especially in children. Encouragingly, a growing body of evidence suggests that non-invasive markers measured in the urine and plasma may be specific in detecting gut inflammation in patients with IBD.

 

The potential of non-invasive markers to identify patients with IBD, monitor their treatment outcomes and assess their risk of relapse is appealing. Gastroenterologists would be able to diagnose IBD much faster by eliminating colonoscopy wait times. In addition, they would be able to individualise treatment by prescribing more powerful drugs to patients at risk of relapse, while patients at reduced risk would avoid these more powerful drugs.

The overall objective of this project is to determine whether levels of novel markers of inflammation measured in the blood and urine will correlate with disease severity in patients with IBD. Several studies have assessed the ability of fecal calprotectin to reflect disease severity in patients with IBD. However, this marker is not sensitive or specific enough to eliminate the need for invasive endoscopic examinations. Consequently, the proposed research is vital to enabling identification of novel markers of inflammation that better reflect disease severity and limit the need for colonoscopy.

 

The proposed research represents an exciting opportunity for an experienced researcher. Identification and validation of non-invasive markers that have the ability to reflect disease severity has the potential to aid in the diagnosis and assessment of IBD. If validated, non-invasive inflammatory markers could reduce the need for invasive investigations. This would be particularly beneficial for children, who often have to undergo several unpleasant procedures before obtaining an accurate IBD diagnosis.

With a delay in diagnosis and appropriate treatment often resulting in poor physical and mental wellbeing and limiting educational progress, better tools for the ongoing assessment and diagnosis of gut inflammation would lead directly to improved outcomes for those with IBD.

 


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