Every now and then, you hear about someone who explored the world in such a way that it makes you want to book your next trip right away. As 2017 draws to a close, we recall six inspiring women travellers and their epic journeys.
Hands up if you have a travel bucket list that grows by the minute? If so, Cassie De Pecol is bound to make you green with envy. In February, the 27-year-old American jetsetter became the first woman on record to visit every sovereign nation on earth. On completion of her journey in 18 months and 26 days, she also set the record for the fastest time to complete the global trip, beating the previous record of three years and three months held by Yili Liu, a professor at the University of Michigan.
Cassie’s trip, which began in Palau in 2015, spans 196 countries and saw her crossing through some difficult and occasionally, unwelcoming terrain. Her adventure wasn’t just about smashing world records and gaining passport stamps; as an ambassador for the International Institute of Peace Through Tourism, she promoted sustainable tourism through meetings with dignitaries, tourism ministers and students across the globe.
Unless you have been hiding under a rock recently (unlikely behaviour for our adventurous Zafigo readers!), you’re sure to have heard of Jin Jeong. When she was 24, this South Korean solo cyclist set herself a goal: To spin around the world alone on two wheels. Many told her it was an impossible feat, others warned her that the ambitious plan could prove dangerous for a woman on her own. Yet, despite discouraging opinions and setbacks ranging from accidents to sexual harassment, the bold explorer hasn’t looked back since setting her wheels in motion six years ago.
Sixty-seven countries and 62,000 kilometres later, Jin is as eager to travel as ever, and aims to inspire others to follow their own dreams. She certainly left many of us motivated to get pedalling after her talk at this year’s ZafigoX, an event dedicated to women empowerment and travel.
Receiving devastating news will either make or break you. For American native Megan Sullivan, a diagnosis of skin cancer was something that presented her with a new goal: to “live more now.” Her diagnosis, which occurred in the same month as a 50-feet fall in Yosemite and a road accident, encouraged her to embrace her wanderlust and embark on a long-awaited dream trip to the seven wonders of the world. Over 13 days, the 31-year-old made footprints in Chichen Itza in Mexico, Machu Picchu in Peru, the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, the 98-foot statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal in India, and the Roman Colosseum in Italy.
Documenting her journey on her personal website as well as her Instagram feed (@megthelegend), Megan invites the world to take inspiration from her whirlwind adventure. “The only regrets that I have in my life are from the missed opportunities that I never took a chance on. This year I took a chance and I will continue taking chances to experience the greatest adventure of all: My life,” she wrote.
At the age of 19, during a stint in Paris, every woman’s worst nightmare became a reality for Claire McFarlane. Raped and brutally attacked on the streets of one of Europe’s most popular travel destinations, the South Africa-born Australian was lucky to escape with her life. But 10 years later, she was forced to confront the traumatic experience when asked by French authorities to identify her suspected attacker. She did, and followed through with the legal proceedings that helped to put him behind bars.
Claire’s appalling experience, coupled with her fighting attitude, inspired her to make a change in the world. The result? Footsteps to Inspire, a challenge that will see Claire run 16 kilometres of beach in each country across the globe, to raise awareness for survivors of sexual violence. Though her endeavour hit the ground running – literally! – in July of last year, it was in 2017 that it really took off as Claire became a regular feature on the airwaves and in newspapers. At time of writing, she has run 33 countries across five continents, carrying her message every step of the way. In February, she visited Malaysia, where she ran 16km along Batu Ferringhi, Penang. Read Zafigo’s interview with Claire here.
Jaahnavi Sriperambaduru’s mountaineering feats have brought her more news headlines and world records than she has had birthdays. At only 15, the Indian adventurer has scaled the highest mountains in four of the world’s seven continents as part of her #Mission7summit challenge. She is the youngest girl in the world to scale Mount Elbrus, the youngest Indian girl to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the youngest person to have reached the summit of Stok Kangri in the Himalayas… the list goes on.
She encourages others to aim high through her TED talks, guided treks, and involvement in worldwide campaigns. Jaahnavi now has her sights set on the final three: Mount Aconcagua in South America, Mount Vinson Massif in Antartica and Mount Everest. She plans to conquer the ultimate peak in April 2018 and has set up a crowdfunding campaign to help her to achieve her goal.
It’s standard for most to plan their travels before we ‘settle down’, believing that footloose living and family life exist worlds apart. Yet when they hit international headlines this year, the Zapp family from Argentina proved to us all that it’s entirely possible to bring the whole family along for the adventure.
In 2000, inspirational couple Herman and Candelaria Zapp loaded their bags into their vintage car and set off on what they intended to be a six-month trip from Argentina to Alaska before starting their family. One might say that they took one heck of a detour, as 17 years and 80 countries later, the ambitious adventurers are still on the road, only now, with their four children in tow. Despite running out of money in the first six months of their journey, the couple have kept pushing ahead with their dream, thanks to sales of their paintings, their book Spark your Life and the kindness of strangers. In 2017, the family began the final leg of their journey across the Atlantic and will soon return to Argentina to begin the next chapter of their lives.
(First published on Zafigo.com on December 26 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/2017-epic-talked-about-travels/)
My first experience with an elephant was pretty artificial. Being from Ireland, it was unlikely that I would find these magnificent creatures while wandering the streets or playing in a field. Unsurprisingly, my first memory of elephants is the same as most of my peers’: Watching the movie Dumbo at the tender age of four.
I remember well how I cried when young Dumbo was separated from his mother. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine anything more traumatic, and failed to comprehend how humans can be so cruel towards an innocent creature. Of course, Dumbo is fiction. And as I grew older, I realised that acts of cruelty towards elephants are indeed very real. Across the globe, thousands of elephants are kept in poor conditions and forced to entertain humans through rides and performances.
Because of these realisations, I’ve long vowed to never support such acts, and I know I’m not alone. In recent years, there has been increasing awareness about the unethical treatment of elephants in riding camps, which has encouraged many tourists to avoid them. As a result, numerous ‘ethical’ elephant sanctuaries have been established in their place.
While in Thailand, I decided to pay a visit to one and after much research, settled on a sanctuary I believed held the best interests of elephants at its core. The experience was unforgettable.
We learned about their former lives as logging and riding elephants, including the horrendous ‘spirit-breaking’ process they endured to make them submissive. We were informed about the work that the organisation are doing to give them a better life and their ongoing efforts to change public attitudes. And, apart from feeding one older elephant, we simply watched them from afar. I may not have left with hundreds of elephant selfies like most, but it is because of this that I left feeling certain that I supported a good cause.
Fast forward several months to when I was in northern Thailand with some friends. The idea of visiting an elephant sanctuary arose and I jumped at the chance of seeing these creatures again. We chose to visit another well-known sanctuary, where the elephants roam free and riding isn’t an option. Yet, while this visit was also preceded by plenty of research, the outcome wasn’t so positive.
Our arrival coincided with the approach of several elephants from a nearby hill. It seemed unlikely that this was a natural response to the arrival of loud, sweaty humans but I guess it was all part of the show to come.
Then, our guide introduced himself and apologised that he must give a quick safety talk, insisting that we would have plenty of time afterwards to “play with the elephants” and “take selfies.” “We want you to have fun” was their message, though not a mention was given to how the elephants felt, where they came from and why they were there.
We were then allowed to feed the elephants, which felt okay, to a point. The handlers then encouraged the elephants to do tricks, which we were told they still remembered from their circus days. While probably true, it felt wrong to encourage them to perform these charades for the sake of a photo.
After eating, the elephants were brought down to a mud pool, many of them being tugged in by their ears. Most of the visitors opted to get in with them for a mud bath, with some lying across their backs to get a selfie.
Elephants and humans alike were then given the chance to cool down in a river. “The elephants can leave the water when they like,” we were told, but the reality wasn’t so idyllic. Observing everything from the riverbank, I saw several elephants leave the water and head uphill. When one tried to take an alternative route, I noticed a handler slip a sharp nail from his pocket and prod his head. The elephant swiftly obeyed.
Following lunch, I witnessed another act of cruelty when an elephant attempted to take some leftover rice from a pot. A handler quickly ran over and led him away, but not without smacking him with a stick when he felt he was out of eye and earshot of us.
I left feeling uneasy and with many unanswered questions, despite my attempts to learn more throughout the day. Where did these elephants really come from? Unlike the first sanctuary, these elephants were allowed to breed. What will happen to their newborns? Was I just being paranoid?
Various conversations following my visit confirmed my suspicions that not all was what it seemed. While better than a riding camp, this place was definitely more concerned with entertaining tourists than helping elephants.
Elephant tourism in Thailand is not diminishing, but simply evolving. According to World Animal Protection (WAP), there’s been a 30 per cent increase in the number of captive elephants there between 2010 and 2016. People are becoming aware that most tourists won’t support animal cruelty, and so they are slapping labels like ‘sanctuary’ and ‘eco-tourism’ on their fliers. Yet, if the animals are still being controlled and sometimes hurt to please humans and keep us safe, what’s the difference?
Indeed, not all elephant sanctuaries are fake. Elephant Nature Park, Wildlife Friends of Thailand, and Kindred Spirit are three world-renowned organisations that are making a difference. They are worthy of and in need of public support.
I cannot turn back the clock or forget what I witnessed, but I can encourage others to research thoroughly before they visit an elephant sanctuary. Ask questions. Choose wisely. And if it appears too good to be true, it probably is.
(First published on Zafigo.com on November 22 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/visiting-thailands-elephant-sanctuaries/)
It’s normal to let routine go out the window while abroad. Leaving it all behind is what travelling is about, right? Yet, while it’s okay to ease up on your work and other grown-up responsibilities while you’re globe-trotting, it’s important to remain a responsible traveller overall. Taking a few steps to be more environmentally-friendly is one way to do just that.
You can easily accumulate hoards of plastic when travelling around Asia, where drinking bottled water is the norm for tourists and bagging fresh produce in the market is a given. You can quickly build a mountain of plastic rivalling Mount Kinabalu in size! Avoid this; it’s up to you to take charge of your consumer habits.
Staying hydrated is certainly important in the heat. To keep your water intake up and your plastic consumption down, why not purchase a refillable flask? In Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, in particular, clean water stations are quite common. In Kuala Lumpur, for example, you can find water coolers at some malls and at the airport. There are also vending machines that dispense potable water at a fraction of the price you’d pay for bottled water at a convenience store. So not only will you be saving plastic, but also some tourist dollars in the process. You can also use reusable containers for takeaway coffees, juices and street food.
Saying no to straws is another way to avoid unnecessary plastic – your fresh mango juice will taste just as good, I promise! In places such as Koh Tao in Thailand, many bars offer metal straws. Support these businesses when possible.
If you’re staying in one place for a while, it’s likely that you’ll be shopping in markets, so pick up some large reusable bags. They’re better for the environment and much easier to carry on a motorbike than dozens of plastic bags.
As a long-term traveller, I make sure that my entire wardrobe fits into my backpack. Unfortunately, wearing and washing the same things again and again soon leads to wear and tear. The easiest thing to do is replace damaged clothes but are you creating more waste in the process?
Before you say farewell to your well-travelled shirt, ask yourself: Is this mendable? If it’s simply a case of a few holes or ripped stitches, take it to a local tailor to get fixed. Bags, hats, clothes and shoes can be mended in a matter of minutes. Maybe your shorts have a stain that just won’t come out? Why not buy a few colourful patches or badges to cover them? Of course, some things cannot be saved, but that’s not to say that they don’t have a purpose. Your old t-shirt can serve as a cleaning cloth, the strap from your worn bag can become a headband – be creative!
Whether moving by road or air, travelling takes its toll on the environment, and it’s unavoidable. But we’ve got to get to places somehow, right? By being conscious of our travel choices when route-planning, we can at least minimise the effects that our explorations have on the planet.
Air travel is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to CO2 emissions, and cheap airlines make it tempting to fly short distances. While many international flights are necessary, travelling domestically or to neighbouring countries often doesn’t require a flight. Most sleeper trains and buses are extremely comfortable and will leave you with more stories to tell than a quick plane journey.
If travelling within a smaller area, research all public transport options. Trains and buses in Asia are extremely affordable, and in some cases, even free. Taking a car or taxi may sometimes be necessary; if so, try to carpool or share a cab. Even Uber and Grab offer carpooling options in many cities.
Travelling by motorbike is another authentic experience when exploring Asia, and there’s nothing like feeling the wind in your hair as you cruise along in the sunshine. However, if you aren’t going far, why not walk or cycle instead? It may be hot, but a little sweat never did anyone any harm!
Taking part in a local clean-up allows you to do your bit for the environment while soaking in the sights and sounds of a new place. During my travels around South East Asia over the last nine months, I have been pleasantly surprised to see just how many beach and river clean-ups are organised by locals and expats alike. By asking around or doing a search on Facebook groups, you’re likely to find something similar in your area. These clean-ups are also a great opportunity to socialise, as those involved often arrange to go for some food or a drink afterwards. Some of the more adventurous outings even allow you to kayak as you clean! If you can’t find a clean-up near you, why not be a pioneer and organise one yourself? Who knows what it could lead to.
It’s well documented that reducing the global meat consumption can benefit the environment but you don’t have to go cold turkey (or should I say cold tofu?) to make a difference. Becoming a vegetarian isn’t for everyone, and I think it’s only fair to respect everyone’s choices. However, even having one or two meatless days a week is a positive step forward. Asian countries have a huge selection of delicious vegetarian dishes waiting to be tried, from pad Thai and papaya salad in Thailand to vegetarian spring rolls in Vietnam. Fresh tropical fruit and juices are also a cheap and easy vegetarian breakfast choice that provide great refreshment in the sweltering heat. It’s quite easy to request vegetarian food anywhere if you can express your needs; learn the word for vegetarian in various languages or better still, use Zafigo’s handy travel cards.
Waste collection methods differ in every country, but with a little research and effort, you can find out where to recycle plastic, glass and paper in your area. You can also ask local food businesses whether they sanitise and reuse their packaging. Peanut butter is my biggest weakness, and while living in Da Nang, I found a local company that produces and sells their own. They were delighted to take back my (dozens of) empty tubs to reuse, and many other businesses are equally keen to do the same.
When it comes to recycling clothing that you no longer want, many charities are often crying out for unwanted clean clothes. Ask a local friend if they can point you in the right direction. Alternatively, find or organise a clothes swap party with others in the area – it’s all the fun of a new wardrobe without denting your bank balance.
(First published on Zafigo.com on November 11 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/6-tips-on-becoming-an-earth-friendly-traveller/)
They say that everyone has a book in them. Unfortunately for most of us, it’s not always easy to find a conducive environment to put pen to paper and begin telling our story. While writers’ retreats have been established worldwide to give budding wordsmiths the time and space they require, most of them come with a high price tag. Why not create your own retreat, at your budget? Here are five tips to get you started.
If you’re like me, spending time amidst nature is enough to cure even the most severe writer’s block, leading to a welcome surge of writing inspiration. There’s just something about the fruity chortling of birds and gentle rush of the wind that encourages me to pick up the pen again. Thankfully, nature is everywhere and comes at no cost.
In Asia, we’re lucky to have dozens of stunning national parks at our doorstep. Find yourself basic accommodation in or beside one of these natural treasures and check in for a few days or weeks at a time. You’re sure to have little distraction from your creative endeavours. I stayed in a quiet hut at the edge of Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park and found it to be the perfect location for reading, writing and developing ideas. As a bonus, all of my meals were provided for. I highly recommend finding a place that offers similar packages as it means you can devote less time to chopping vegetables and more time to writing.
Where you can go: National parks in Asia that serve as potential writing havens are Taman Negara in Malaysia, Kirirom National Park in Cambodia and Nakai-Nam Theun National Biodiversity Conservation Area in Laos.
During my upcoming travels through Vietnam, I personally hope to get some writing done in the mountainous region of Da Lat as well as stunning Ninh Binh in the north. For those who are easily distracted, or just prefer the sounds of the sea, perhaps it’s best to flee to an island. Koh Kood in Thailand is a winner for me, while Koh Rong Sanloem in Cambodia, the islands in Komodo National Park in Indonesia and Japan’s Yakushima island should be on any writer’s (and traveller’s!) bucket list.
Some people require a bit of a push and titbits of advice to get their creative juices flowing, and that’s why writing retreats have become so popular. If you find yourself in that bracket but can’t afford to fork out for an organised retreat, don’t despair! There are plenty of ways to get the support you need at little to no extra cost.
Most larger towns and cities have writing clubs that see novice and seasoned writers come together regularly to share their work and gain feedback. Why not book a cheap stay in a city you’re keen to see and hook up with one of these groups while there? A few days or weeks on your self-moulded writers retreat is sure to leave you feeling equally refreshed and inspired.
Literary festivals usually offer both free and affordable events and workshops, and are also great opportunities to rub shoulders with established writers. Asia hosts approximately 60 literary festivals annually so you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to picking a destination and activities.
Make your way to: Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (25-29 October 2017), Singapore Writers Festival (3-12 November 2017), Hong Kong International Literary Festival (3-12 November 2017), George Town Literary Festival (24-26 November 2017), and Jaipur International Literature Festival (January 2018).
Asian cities have served as both the birthplace and the inspiration for some extremely successful authors. If you’re a budding writer, there are many Asian cities worth a visit. Who knows what inspiration you might glean!
Where to go: Tokyo has a rich literary heritage, with dozens of bookstores and libraries, along with museums dedicated to the writers that have roamed its streets. It was once home to Matsuo Basho, the founder of the haiku, and a museum in his memory sits there today. Though hailing from Kyoto, author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami lived and based many of his books on Tokyo. There’s even a walking tour in his honour. Controversial author Yukio Mishima (Confessions of a Mask) was born here, as was crime novelist Hideo Yokoyama, whose novel Six Four famously sold a million copies in just six days.
The colourful and bustling city of Mumbai has served as the backdrop for many famous books, including Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo’s multi award-winning book Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. Salmon Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children, which focuses on India’s transition from colonialism to independence, also used his native city of Mumbai as its stage. The critically-acclaimed Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts was also based in Mumbai and is said to be inspired by real events.
Dozens of authors, including Jungle Book creator Rudyard Kipling and prolific Marathi writer PL Deshpande (Vyakti Ani Valli), were born in the city. If you fancy reading any of these for inspiration, head to Mumbai’s Book Street where you are sure to find something among the heaving stalls.
After months of seeking out a destination where I can peacefully write and form new ideas, I found the park beside my current home in Da Nang to be the perfect spot. Though it had been right under my nose for months, I never considered it a place to find writing inspiration. Don’t underestimate the destinations on your doorstep.
Try these spots: Take a walk around your neighbourhood, try writing at various places and see how you feel. It could be that park around the corner, the nondescript coffee shop you always walk past without a second glance, the public library, the 24-hour coin operated laundry… any of these might be where your story begins. I urge you to grab pen and paper when you pay a visit!
(First published on Zafigo.com on November 5 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/build-your-own-writers-retreat/)
The initial stages of moving to a new city can be incredibly exciting as you get to explore a new place and all that it has to offer. Then, reality kicks in and you may find yourself feeling lonely and missing things back home. The first few weeks of living in a new city can be particularly lonely, especially when flying solo. While it’s easy enough to pack up your clothes, books and even furniture during a move, there are some things you just can’t load into a suitcase, namely friends and family.
A new group of friends won’t be handed to you on a silver platter, and forming new friendships at an adult stage in life is certainly not as easy as during your playground days. But it doesn’t have to be difficult – so long as you’re willing to make an effort and lean outside your comfort zone.
No matter how lonely you feel, you are certainly never alone. Regardless of where you go, there are plenty of like-minded women seeking a friend to share a coffee and a chat with. It’s just a case of finding them! Thankfully, there are several platforms that have been established to help you do just that.
On moving to a new town in Ireland, I joined the local GirlCrew branch and it was one of the best decisions I made. This women-only social network, which now has 46 branches worldwide and over 90,000 members, allows women in the same area to link up online and organise meet-ups and events.
While the first meeting was a bit daunting (and felt a bit like online dating!), once I got to chatting with people, I realised that there are so many other women out there in the same boat as me. Bowling nights, lunch dates and nights out ensued, and I can definitely say that I formed a few lasting friendships as a result.
Girl Gone International is a similar organisation for women worldwide. I am a member of the local group in Da Nang, Vietnam and love meeting both local women and expatriates alike at the fun monthly meet-ups. Not only has GGI brought me brilliant new friends; it has also given me some memorable experiences (such as a movie night on the beach and a Vietnamese cooking class).
Have you always wanted to try yoga? Or perhaps you fancy yourself as a guitarist? Whatever your interest, moving to a new place is the perfect opportunity to start something different and in the process, meet new people. Striking up conversations with strangers doesn’t come easy to everybody, but joining a class that interests you ensures that you will always have a conversation starter.
Personally, I find signing up for a full-term course to be the best option. Once your money is handed over, you are more likely to stick with your new hobby and hopefully, continue to develop new friendships along the way. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t the most talented person in the class; I recently joined a Zumba group in Da Nang and am certain that my moves are more akin to Bigfoot’s than Beyoncé’s! As long as you’re having fun and socialising with other people, that’s what matters.
Working on my laptop at home can feel pretty isolating. But I’ve found that it doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re lucky enough to work for yourself or as a freelancer, you can turn your work days into social opportunities by working in a public space. Many large cities and small towns have established co-working spaces where you can rent a spot to work and rub shoulders with others throughout the work day. Some of these spaces also organise social activities and events to allow people to get to know their ‘co-workers’ and share ideas.
A cheaper and easier alternative is to work from a local cafe. Find out where the most popular spots are (in my case, anywhere with strong WiFi, strong coffee and good air-conditioning) and prop yourself up with your laptop and a cafe latte. Stir up a conversation with the person at the table next to you if the opportunity arises. Chatting with the café staff could also turn into a chance to make a new friend. At the very least, working from a cafe will allow you to enjoy a change of scenery and some delicious coffee. Who can argue with that?
There’s no point in wasting your free and alone time feeling sorry for yourself or pining for home. No matter where you are in the world, there is always an organisation or cause that is crying out for helping hands. Why not offer to do some work at a local animal shelter or get involved in a weekly soup run?
If you find yourself unable to commit to a weekly volunteer position, seek out one-off events such as beach clean-ups or charity fundraisers. Such admirable causes attract people from all walks of life, so you are guaranteed to meet a diverse range of people.
If you find someone that you click with, don’t be afraid to ask them out for a coffee afterwards. What’s the worst that could happen? Chances are they will only be delighted to wind down and chat after a busy day.
Sometimes new friends can be found in the most unlikely places. For this reason, it is so important to keep an open mind and remain patient when you move abroad. That girl you’re chatting with on a long bus journey home could become a firm friend. During a stint living in Paris, I met one of my best friends there completely by chance when she approached me to ask for directions.
While asking me how to get anywhere is a grave mistake (navigation isn’t my strong suit), her decision to approach me certainly was not. It turned out that we have a lot in common. Not only were we both going to the same place and equally as lost as the other, we were also living away from home and enjoyed many of the same activities.
When we finally reached our destination, we swapped phone numbers and arranged to meet up for a drink the following week. Soon, a strong friendship blossomed, and over the next few months we explored the beautiful streets and sights of Paris together. Fast forward four years later and we live elsewhere, but we still remain in touch. And that’s how I know that each time I move some place new, I’ll always be able to find new friends.
(First published on Zafigo.com on September 12 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/tips/make-friends-when-move-new-city/)
Stress, anxiety, and depression are emotions we all feel at some point in our lives, some people to a greater degree than others. Part of the human experience, right?
“It may seem odd that my research focuses on the gut if I’m interested in the brain,” says John Cryan, a researcher at the APC Microbiome Institute at University College Cork in Ireland. “But when we think of how we express emotion in language, through sayings like ‘butterflies in your tummy’ and ‘gut feeling,’ it isn’t surprising that they’re connected.”
In a recent study, Cryan and his colleagues reported a link between the microbiome and fear. By examining mice with and without gut bacteria, they discovered that the germ-free mice had blunted fear responses (Mol Psychiatr, doi:10.1038/mp.2017.100, 2017). Their findings may pave the way for the development of novel treatments for anxiety-related illnesses, including posttraumatic stress disorder.
Researchers at Kyushu University in Japan were the first to show, in 2004, that bacteria in the gut can influence stress responses, prompting many subsequent investigations. Yet despite mounting research, scientists remain uncertain about exactly how the gut microbiome affects the brain. While some bacteria influence the brain through the vagus nerve, other strains seem to use different pathways. It is known, however, that the population of the gut microbiome begins in early life, and recent research suggests that disruptions to its normal development may influence future physical and mental health (Nat Commun, 6:7735, 2015).
Researchers are finding that this gut-brain connection could have clinical implications, as influencing the gut microbiome through diet may serve to ameliorate some psychiatric disorders. Together with University College Cork colleague Ted Dinan, Cryan coined the term “psychobiotics” in 2013 to describe live organisms that, when ingested, produce health benefits in patients with psychiatric illness. These include foods containing probiotics, live strains of gut-friendly bacteria.
While there are many rodent studies linking probiotics and mental health, UCLA biologist Emeran Mayer and his colleagues were the first to test them in humans, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to assess the results. After administering probiotic yogurt to a group of healthy women twice a day for four weeks, the researchers found that the women had a reduced brain response to negative images (Gastroenterology, 144:1394-401, 2013).
“We reanalysed the data several times and convinced ourselves that it’s real,” Mayer says. “You can almost say it was a career-changer for me.”
Having conducted this study on healthy participants, Mayer is reluctant to conclude that probiotics can cure mental illnesses such as anxiety. “It’s a complex emotion, not just a reflex behavior like in the mouse,” he says. However, Mayer says he’s very supportive of the potential of prebiotics—fiber-rich foods that promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Researchers at Deakin University in Australia recently trialed a Mediterranean-style diet, which is predominately plant-based and fiber-rich, in a group of adults with major depression. They found that one-third of the participants reported a significant improvement in symptoms after 12 weeks on the diet (BMC Medicine, 15:23, 2017). One of them was Sarah Keeble from Melbourne. “I’ve suffered from depression for 17 years. At the start of this study, I was right at the bottom of the barrel,” she recalls. “After a few weeks, that sinking feeling slowly lifted, and my motivation and enthusiasm improved.”
Just as activity in the gut seems to affect the brain, mental stress can lead to intestinal problems. Scientists have demonstrated this in research on irritable bowel syndrome. For example, a study by Mayer and colleagues linked early-life emotional trauma to an increased risk of developing the bowel disorder (Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol, 10:385-90, 2012).
As data on the brain-gut axis accumulates, many scientists are taking notice. Trinity College Dublin researcher Shane O’Mara says that there is “great potential” in this area, but cautions that it’s too early to say whether targeting the microbiome will play a role in psychiatric treatment. University of Manitoba gastroenterologist Charles Bernstein also feels the research is promising but believes we are “far from manipulating the microbiome to treat mental health disorders.”
Those spearheading this research are equally aware of the need for more studies, particularly in human subjects, but they are hopeful that change lies ahead. “I’m almost certain that in several years, diet will be considered one branch of therapy for many mental illnesses, alongside medication and psychiatric treatments,” says Mayer.
“People with severe mental illness will still need something very strong, but this is a useful adjunctive,” agrees Cryan. “I think when we go to our GP in future, we will not only have blood tests, we will have the microbiome tested.”
“Within five years, I hope to see more clinical trials that demonstrate the efficacy of prebiotics and probiotics on mental health disorders,” says University of Chicago microbial ecologist Jack Gilbert. “There needs to be a revolution in how we deal with mental illness in our society.”
(First published in The Scientist magazine September 2017. Also available online at: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/50146/title/How-Microbes-May-Influence-Our-Behavior/)