New scientific advances on the gut-brain axis have the potential to change how we diagnose and manage mental health. We spoke with Jennifer Cooper about how emerging research in this field could help identify product innovation opportunities, reshaping this nascent category. Jennifer is the president of Alternative Laboratories, which helps businesses achieve market success through cutting edge innovation and custom manufacturing. Jennifer will be speaking on this topic at Vitafoods Europe.
Q. Jennifer, a key focus of your presentation is on new scientific advances on the gut-brain axis. What is the gut-brain axis, and what scientific advances are you talking about here?
A. The gut-brain axis is more correctly described as the microbiome-gut-brain axis. Each part of this three-way axis contributes important elements that alter the way we define mental health and are leading to a more ‘whole organism’ approach to managing these conditions. The microbiome itself has all the attributes to qualify as an organ due to its ability to influence metabolism, interact with other organs and systemically integrate into our biology. The organisms within our microbiome produce hundreds of bioactive chemicals including neurotransmitters identical to those in the brain. Surprisingly, most of the brain’s serotonin is actually manufactured in the gut.
The gut is our most sensing organ - it processes more data than our skin. The gut contains more than 100 to 500 million neurons, exceeding the number of neurons found in the spine. The vagus nerve is the information superhighway between the gut-microbiome and the brain. This bi-directional messaging can be seen across multiple pathways via neural, immune, and endocrine signalling.
Scientific advances within the research in this area include better understanding the complexity of the gut habitat - it is more than just the microbiome. Like any habitat, the gut has three important elements: who lives there (microbiome), what they eat (resources) and where they live (environment). Each of these components are critical to a healthy habitat. Most research is focused on the ‘who lives there,’ but we are starting to branch out to study the effect of the resources and the environment on the gut habitat.
The microbiome represents one of the great conduits of epigenetic modulation. Studies up to this point have sometimes been mixed, because we are trying to measure the delicate flipping on and off of genes compared to people’s notoriously inaccurate food diaries, but the science of metabolomics is about to change all of that.
Q. Why might these scientific advances be significant for the management of mental health, and what are some of the practical implications of these cutting edge discoveries?
A. One of the most practical implications of the emerging science is that it doesn’t validate many of the current products on the market. High numbers of strains and high counts are not representative of the formulas being studied for specific mental health or other conditions. Until very recently, probiotics were limited to those that were common in the food system and easily commercially produced. However, new technology is bringing indigenous probiotics on to the market, including the first commercial availability of Akkermansia muciniphila. Other strains may follow like Faecalibacterium prausnitzii. These strains will be incredibly powerful. They represent a much higher percentage of the actual microbiome than most probiotic strains. Their impact could be potentially enormous and unprecedented when compared to current probiotics.
Postbiotics are an area of increased research and controversy. Not everyone agrees with the new ISAPP postbiotic definition. Regardless, the emerging research on postbiotics is comparable or better than many live therapeutics.
Q. What, to date, have been some of the challenges in bringing products designed to promote mental wellbeing to market?
A. As with many categories, much of the research is on disease outcomes, including anxiety, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, depression, autism, and Parkinson’s disease. Disease-related studies pose a quandary for supporting supplement claims. The significance of the microbiome’s metabolic activity on drug metabolism and mental health means that in future, studies on these disorders will be likely require microbiome profiling as qualifying acceptance criteria. We now understand that an individual’s microbiome constitutes a considerable variable factor in clinical research. Additionally, the rapid improvements in microbiome profiling methodology, standardisation of organism characterisation and advances in metabolomics has the potential to accelerate and revolutionise the science around the microbiome-gut-brain axis.
The quest to educate the consumer on the connection between their gut and brain health is still in its infancy. Helping the consumer embrace microbiome applications beyond digestion and immunity will dovetail with a growing body of science on the systemic effects of the gut health in other areas like skin, heart, lung and liver.
Q. How might emerging new research in this sector be able to drive new innovation opportunities, and what new possibilities do you see emerging?
A. New innovation in the category will not just be focused on probiotics, but the science that supports product development using prebiotics, synbiotics, postbiotics and the development of indigenous probiotic species for mental health applications. The best new science does not necessarily support the multi-strain, high count formulas that are dominant on the market.
Q. What advice would you give manufacturers looking to tap the emerging mental wellness trend, and are there any areas of interest or product categories you would underline as yet untapped?
A. In a category where the traditional therapies are fraught with low satisfaction rates and a high incidence of side effects, a more wholistic approach to mental health via the gut offers a solution to these challenges. Additionally, the risk factors of developing mental health conditions begins in the womb. Favourable modifications of the microbiome in early life may lower the risk of developing mental health issues in the future.
Similarly, the potential to ameliorate the effects of ageing on brain chemistry are extremely promising. An important area of research involves stress, anxiety and low mood disorders. Our modern lifestyle is both increasingly stressful while decreasing and impairing our mechanisms for coping with stress. The microbiome is the bridge from our lifestyle to our brain health.
Q. Taking a more long-term view, how do you see the mental health category evolving over the next few years, in terms of more manufacturers getting on board, consumer perceptions changing, new scientific discoveries etc.?
A. We have just experienced a global, coronavirus, health pandemic, but experts are predicting it will soon be followed by an even more pervasive mental health pandemic. Mental health will continue to be a priority for many decades to come. We once thought that healthy microbiomes would have certain core features in common with each other, but instead research has found incredible individual variability. It turns out that each person’s microbiome is unique- almost like a fingerprint. The long-term future of the microbiome lies in personalised nutrition and epigenetics.