By Dr Jocelyn Eason, general manager of Food Innovation for Plant and Food Research

For years, our traditional view of the physical ‘self’ has centred on the body, composed of eukaryote cells and encoded by our genome. These days we know that microbial communities actually outnumber our own cells. In exchange for food and shelter, these symbionts provide us (their hosts) with metabolic functions outside our own physiological capabilities.

This understanding of how we function characterises the human body more as a ‘superorganism’ than a self-contained mass of cells. This superorganism is a communal group of human and microbial cells. The most important of these are the gut microbiota.

Our gut microbiota work together with our gut to carry out tasks related to digestion, as well as immune and endocrine function and even neurotransmission. The gut-brain axis consists of the nervous, endocrine, and immune pathways and is a key mechanism through which our microbiota influence our overall health. Knowledge about the gut-brain axis is developing rapidly and influencing our understanding of illness and disease.

Modern changes in diet, lifestyle, and health care have brought with them dramatic changes in the human ‘superorganism’. Humans are experiencing a move away from traditional diseases towards an increasing incidence of digestive, metabolic, immune, and neurodevelopmental disorders. Many of these disorders are related to abnormal gut microbiota.

A number of things can induce microbiota disturbance, including stress, antibiotics, and unhealthy diets. Conversely, probiotics and prebiotics, in the form of fermented foods, oligosaccharides, dietary fibres, unsaturated fatty acids, and polyphenols, can help proliferate beneficial microorganisms and improve overall health and wellbeing.

Given our knowledge about the gut-brain axis, including our evolving understanding of how food and microorganisms influence neurological function and moods, future foods should be designed to sustain the health of the human superorganism (eukaryote and prokaryote cells). Food choices are more important than ever in promoting a healthy future.

Dr Jocelyn Eason has a PhD in Plant Physiology from Otago University and an MBA from Massey University. In her current role, Dr Eason manages Plant & Food Research’s Food Innovation Portfolio, which includes teams that investigate human responses to food, the influence of food on human nutrition and wellness, and the production and supply of nutritionally rich foods.

The information and opinions within this column are not necessarily the views or opinions of Hot Source, NZ Food Technology or the parent company, Hayley Media.