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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.




Understanding IBS: The Gut Foundation

It’s the gut condition that is extremely common and yet talked about behind cupped hands – if it is talked about at all. Metropol caught up with The Gut Foundation Trustee, Professor Richard Gearry to find out more about irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).



One of the most misunderstood and poorly acknowledged abdominal problems are the functional gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS can come with a range of symptoms including abdominal pain, with changes of bowel habit that can be constipation, diarrhoea, or alternating from one to the other. Other symptoms can include abdominal bloating. Often pain improves after passing a bowel motion.

IBS is common, affecting about one fifth of New Zealanders and can range from mild to severe symptoms. The symptoms are often variable from day to day. The cause of IBS is not well understood. People with IBS are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression and sometimes more than one family member can be affected.

General practitioners are experts at diagnosing IBS based on symptoms and some laboratory tests. Symptoms such as bleeding from the bowel, abdominal symptoms that wake one from sleep or significant changes from normal must be discussed with a GP as they may not be typical for IBS. Occasionally patients with atypical symptoms or a significant family history of other diseases may need to be considered for colonoscopy or other tests.

The treatment of IBS focuses on managing one of the more complex interactions in the human body. This is the gut-brain axis whereby abdominal symptoms can be exacerbated by what is happening in the brain. This is made even more complex by the gut bacterial environment (also known as the microbiome). There are more bacterial cells in our bodies than human cells and it has become clear that the way in which these bacteria interact with our gut, in combination with our brain through the gut-brain axis, can have an effect on our health.

At present a mainstay for the treatment of IBS is the management of stress and anxiety. Some people with IBS notice that stress can lead to greater symptoms and for these people, relaxation techniques, psychological therapies and hypnotherapy may all help IBS symptoms. Antidepressants may also help, not through their effects on depression but by changing the neurotransmitters in the gut. Diet changes may also lead to improvements in abdominal symptoms. The potential benefits of some diet changes have become more scientifically valid over the last decade. However, the advice of a registered dietitian should be sought when embarking on exclusion diets to ensure that the diet remains balanced.

The future of IBS treatment may include controlling the gut microbiome through a range of methods. For now, medical science is not yet able to define a healthy or unhealthy microbiome, but it is likely that future therapies will target the microbiome to improve life for those with IBS. The Gut Foundation is a supporter of research into all gut disorders including IBS.




Know your normal: The Gut Foundation

The gut, whose real name is almost as long as it is (the gastrointestinal tract), starts at the mouth and runs all the way through your body, ending at the anus. This incredibly clever system is responsible for processing everything we eat and allowing essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals to be absorbed, providing the fuel for our bodies. Any food that cannot be digested is passed out as waste and is what we know as poo!



Most of the time our gut works very well, but it is important to note that everyone is different. As researchers learn, the more they understand that the bacteria profile in our gut is almost as unique to each person as their fingerprint. Because of this individuality, it’s important you know your gut and how it normally behaves, as this knowledge could save your life.

Bowel Cancer statistics in New Zealand are among the highest in the world and it’s time we put some effort into changing this. Bowel cancer used to be thought of as an older persons’ disease but this has changed and many more younger people are dying of bowel cancer.

Knowing your gut is partly about ‘Knowing your normal!’ What is meant by that? This is ensuring that you know your gut and how it normally responds to food. Our poo habits are not something we like to study or talk about, but a few minutes every day could save your life. The thing you need to watch for in your poo is change. To understand change in your poo you need to know what is normal for you.

Frequency and change – what is your normal? Do you poo every day, every second day, or twice a day? Get to know what your frequency is. Texture and change – what is your normal? Is the shape and consistency of your poo like a sausage, small balls, lumpy and sausage-like or something else?

Colour and change – what is your normal? If brown is coming down, there is no need to frown. If you notice changes in colour such as red (blood in your poo) or black or grey, make a time to visit your doctor.

‘Knowing your normal’ takes time. Normal is not the same for each person. Your normal is individual to you. The Gut Foundation has a chart on its website that you can download and complete over a month. This will give you an indication of your normal. Always check after using the toilet. Other symptoms of bowel cancer are abdominal pain, acute tiredness and/or a lump in your tummy.

Currently the Gut Foundation is funding some research into the role of the gut microbiome (bacteria) in the development of precancerous colorectal lesions (polyps). The hope is that this study will allow the organisation’s researchers to develop early stage markers of the disease.

Support this project by donating online at, tagging your donation ‘CRCFF’.


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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