Citizen Science: Further Development of Midterm Topic
On Stefani’s recommendation, I started to explore the relationship between fermented foods and the health of the gut microbiome. This pathway was so interesting to me that I ended up shifting my research significantly towards the microbiome, and its effects on human health and disease.
A primer on the microbiome: it refers to the millions of bacteria that live on our skin, in our eyes, mouths, under our fingernails, and perhaps most importantly, in the gut. Searching on PubMed, I found an article “One Health, Fermented Foods, and Gut Microbiota,” which discussed the “well-balanced microbiota composition in the gut” as a “forgotten organ.” The importance of the gut microbiota was underscored by the following passage: “Gut microbiota modulates the expression of many genes in the human intestinal tract, including genes involved in immunity, nutrient absorption, energy metabolism, and intestinal barrier function.”
So where does fermentation come into play here? Fermented foods contain probiotics, which are live bacteria and yeasts that contribute to a healthy gut microbiome. While it is generally medically accepted that fermented foods and their associated probiotics are beneficial for the digestive system, there haven’t been many studies looking at the effects of common fermented foods containing probiotics. Rather, research has centered around commercially derived isolated probiotic supplements (e.g. probiotic pills). This piqued my interest, because especially in the United States, where healthcare is privatized and incredibly expensive. the idea that commonly available probiotic foods may be as effective or more effective in treating certain conditions (irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, etc.) as their commercial counterparts seemed like an avenue worth exploring.
The effect of the gut microbiome is not limited to just the torso, however. Such a thing as the gut-brain axis exist in scientific terminology, although as of yet it remains a theory supported by correlation. However, a recent large study examining the microbiota of 1000 people, validated against another 1063 participants, found that two groups of bacteria were reduced in the microbiomes of people with depression, as well as finding that quality of life was positively associated with the gut microbiome’s ability to synthesize a breakdown product of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Again, this is all correlation, but it’s a promising start for understanding a potential etiology for mental health disorders.