'The gut influences our mood'

Giulia Enders is a two-time scholarship winner studying medicine at the Institute for Microbiology in Frankfurt, Germany. Her presentation of Darm mit Charme (Gut Charm) won her first prize at the Science Slam in Berlin and went viral on YouTube. Her book on the gut is a bestseller. Enders speaks to Down To Earth about the less discussed topic. Excerpts

By Giulia Enders
Published: Thursday 31 December 2015

What made you choose an unusual subject such as the gut?
When I was 17, I had really bad dermatitis. I wanted to know more about my body and not feel a victim to its ways. When I read about the gut I was extremely surprised that it is way cleaner than I always believed it to be: seven of the approximately eight metres don't have anything to do with faeces, but are clean and odourless most of the time. Also, I was stunned how sensible and responsible it is for so many things in my life-not only food, but my mood, my immune system and also my hormones.

How different is this organ from others?
It is very pretty when you zoom in! The small intestine looks very much like satin under the microscope. If we would roll out all the wrinkles and frill, our gut would be around seven kilometres.

Why do people have such a difficult relationship with their intestine?
In Germany this isn't an easy topic to discuss. So I was very glad when people wrote me that they almost couldn't believe their ears when their catholic grandma put the book on the table and said: `So I think we must talk about this gut book. I discovered I sat wrong on the toilet for 74 years today!' Laughter is a great tool to let go of false shame.

How do the brain and intestine work together?
The scientific hypothesis here is: our brain is a very isolated organ. It is within its bony skull and has a very thick membrane to filter every drop of blood before it may nurture the brain cells. This isolated organ needs to know how we, as a whole, are doing in order to create a mood. Our gut has very relevant information for this: it knows not only all the molecules from our foods, but also what two-thirds of our immune system are doing, what the 100 trillion bacteria are up to, and produces around 20 hormones of its own. Recent research on mice shows how to make them more courageous, or better in studying new things via different gut bacteria. There are also new results of experiments on humans. An American research team showed that the human brain patterns change after a four-week intake of special bacteria, especially in the area of emotion-processing.

To what extent does the intestine influence our mood?
We know only some pieces of the puzzle. For example, people with chronic inflammatory diseases of the gut or irritable bowel syndrome have a higher risk of getting anxiety disorders or depression. Research shows how to improve our mood with gut bacteria. Feeding some of your good microbes well is a smart move. The hard-to-digest grain-cereal is not always the best, but consumption of water-soluble fibres like asparagus, cold potato and onions could help. But more research is needed to specify the extent to which our gut can influence our brain.

How should we treat our bowel?
Get a smarter body feeling using science. Knowing that food takes two to three hours to being taken up in the blood can help you calculate: how do I feel two to three hours after a meal? You can experiment with foods such as probiotics and prebiotics. I am a supporter of selfexperiments, as long as they don't harm you.

How did you prepare to write this book?
I read tonnes of papers and then started playing with the content. My sister was always a great inspiration since she is a scientific-designer. When I got stuck, she would help me see things from different perspectives. I love her illustrations in the book. In my eyes, she has a flawless style.

How has the book changed your life?
Honestly, I didn't think so much about success when I was writing the book. I just thought: more people need to know and this has to be as good as possible. I was very afraid of German scientists; whether they would discard me. But so far, I have got great reactions. Two of my professors invited me to give a 10-minute talk in their lectures.

What's your next book?
First, I hope to be a good doctor. If there is something that I really want people to know, then I could imagine doing small projects with my sister again. But I will be very happy if I could put this book out in the world and continue with my medical work.

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