What happens in the gut, why should you feed the gut microbiota with dietary fibre, and what does this all have to do with the brain? Laura Pirkola from Fazer’s Research and innovation unit Fazer Lab is busy with a new research project determined to shed more light on how fibre intake affects gut microbiota, and how gut microbiota affects the brain, the mood – and overall well-being.

In 2016, Laura Pirkola joined Fazer’s research team as a fresh Master of Science in Human Nutrition. Two years later, in the spring of 2018, Laura’s supervisor and Fazer’s research director Jussi Loponen and Fazer Lab colleague Ulrika Gunnerud made her a proposal that was too interesting to refuse: And as it happens, in September 2018, Laura packed her bags and moved to Uppsala to work on her PhD at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).

Laura’s PhD research is a part of the LivsID program, which is a joint venture of the Swedish government and SLU, conducted in cooperation with different food companies that operate in Sweden. Laura will spend 80% of her working time on her PhD work, and the remaining 20% on other tasks in Fazer Lab.

The second brain is in the gut, they say

Did you ever wonder why we talk about gut feelings, or say that the second brain is in the gut? There is indeed a complex, two-way connection between the gut and the brain. What happens in the gut may affect the brain, and vice versa.

In her PhD research, Laura focuses on this fascinating, and still fairly unknown connection: “The gut-brain axis is currently a hot topic in research, and while the mechanism of this complex two-way connection is already fairly well understood, it is less known how food and nutrients affect it,” Laura explains. “And for a researcher, unknown territories and little studied areas are always interesting.”  

And what about nutrition and fibre?

Fibre is well known to have an impact on gut well-being, but yet in the Western world, people generally don’t eat enough fibre. “For example, in Sweden and Finland, we tend to be below the national recommendations on sufficient fibre intake,” Laura explains.

The question is how to get people to eat more fibre. “Health or nutrition communications often focus on risks and things to avoid: Don’t do this, don’t eat that, it’s bad for you. And people often find these messages a bit preaching, or negative,” says Laura. “In our research, we are trying to identify relevant messages that resonate with young adults and find positive, engaging approaches and tone of voice to get them through.”

For example, the connection between gut microbiota and cognitive capabilities may be an interesting theme in communicating why eating enough fibre and wholegrain products really is worthwhile. The messages will be tested with consumers aged 18 to 40 years, at a later stage of this research, probably in 2021.

Hands-on research on poop

What exactly happens in the gut when you eat  – or don’t eat – fibre , and what is the role of gut microbiota composition in all that, is still not very well understood.

For example, there is some evidence that nutrition or dietary choices have an impact on mood and emotions, and that they can even be connected to the risk of depression. On the other hand, it is already fairly well understood that stress has an impact on gut functions. Gut microbiota is suspected of being the explaining factor here, because it participates in, for example, the production of neurotransmitters. Gut microbiota also plays a role in the immune system and may therefore contribute to, or help prevent low-grade inflammation that is a possible risk factor for depression.

So, to get more research-based knowledge on this topic, Laura’s research includes some serious hands-on laboratory work: analysing stool samples and the specific aspects of different types of fibre. The goal is to better understand how fibre affects gut microbiota, and how this impacts the brain and cognition.

“Getting this opportunity to do my PhD in Sweden for Fazer, on a very interesting topic, was great. I probably wouldn’t have been so interested in a purely academic PhD, but it is rewarding to do this kind of practically oriented research for Fazer, a food company – where the research findings can eventually be transformed into meaningful products, services and communications,” says Laura.

Laura’s research project and PhD studies take five years, so we can look forward to interesting results in 2023.