“The intestines are our most beautiful organs”

Oration Aletta Kraneveld on 6 September

Aletta Kraneveld

“We are our intestines”, is the claim that Professor of Pharmacology Aletta Kraneveld will make during her inaugural lecture on 6 September. Kraneveld studies the ‘gut-brain-axis’: the vital interactions between the intestines and the brain that regulate sickness and health. “Scientists now know that the intestines and the brain communicate with one another”, Kraneveld explains, “but we still don’t know how they do it, exactly.” The intestines are the largest surface area in the body, with a total area equal to two tennis courts, and with 1.3 times as many bacteria as there are cells in the body. “It’s actually a small miracle that everything works so well most of the time.”

Kraneveld’s research focuses specifically on the relationship between the intestines and health, but in general she advocates a more integrated approach to diseases in humans and animals. “Diseases are often much broader and more complicated than the single organ that specialists focus their efforts on”, says Kraneveld. “People with arthritis in remission often develop problems with their intestines, and people with intestinal diseases can suddenly suffer from skin problems. People with neurological disorders also often have abdominal complaints.”


“Chronic diseases are maddeningly complex”, Kraneveld continues. That applies not only to the disease itself, but also to the group of people who are involved. “Physicians, researchers, patients, and people with experience... People with a variety of expertise.” Kraneveld sees herself as a facilitator, the spider in the web. “I’ll never become a neuroscientist or a microbiologist, but I can bring those people together.” It is therefore only natural that Kraneveld is not affiliated with a single faculty, but rather shares an appointment between the faculties of Science and Veterinary Medicine.

Aletta Kraneveld

In her own lab, Kraneveld has deliberately collected a diverse group of researchers from around the world. “Diversity in gender, cultural backgrounds, convictions... that can be difficult sometimes, because my Dutch directness can be unnerving for a Chinese researcher. But it’s also a fun experience, and a diverse team can come up with more innovative plans.”

Nutrition as medicine

Many pharmaceuticals for chronic illnesses are only effective at treating the symptoms, Kraneveld explains. It makes sense to include nutritional interventions in the treatment plan, because the intestines have a major influence on the immune system. More and more people are becoming aware of that fact. “Patients often have many questions about nutrition that doctors are unable to answer. Nutrition should therefore play a larger role in both medical and pharmaceutical education.” Kraneveld emphasises that pharmaceutical research also remains important. “But patients can benefit from a treatment plan that includes more than just a drug or an operation.”

Not a saint

“The intestines are our most beautiful organs”, Kraneveld concludes. “The nervous system in the intestines is unimaginably complex, and is comparable to our brain. In fact, some people call it our ‘second brain’.” Kraneveld sees that people are becoming more aware of the importance of good nutrition, but there is still a long way to go. “We really don’t take very good care of our intestines. We should devote more time to cooking and eating. Not that I don’t use pre-packaged food sometimes”, she adds, laughing. “I’m not a saint, after all.”

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