Jason Hawrelak's passion for gastrointestinal health, the gut microbiota, and probiotics was sparked in his final year of undergraduate naturopathic training. His Honours (First Class) and PhD degrees focused on the gastrointestinal microbiota, the role of dysbiosis in irritable bowel syndrome, and the clinical applications of pre- and probiotics. Dr Hawrelak is a researcher, educator, naturopath, and nutritionist who has written extensively in the medical literature on these topics.
"From reading books on naturopathy in the early 1990s, I learnt for the first time what it took to be truly healthy" Dr Jason Hawrelak
"My initial interest in natural medicine was triggered by my personal health issues, such as longstanding asthma, hayfever and just an overall lack of wellness," Jason says. "From reading books on naturopathy in the early 1990s, I learnt for the first time what it took to be truly healthy. I started eating a predominantly plant-based, whole food diet and gave up junk food (which was a normal part of my childhood diet). I also learnt the importance of time spent in nature, daily meditation, and getting enough sunshine to make adequate vitamin D. Using these core naturopathic principles, my level of health changed dramatically at age 19," he says.
A vibrant health scene
The young backpacker from Canada, arrived in Australia in 1992 and immediately fell in love with the Byron Bay area. The vibrant health scene in Byron at the time had a significant impact on Jason. Soon after arriving on the North Coast, he quit drinking, began to eat healthily, practised mediation and deep breathing, and started to spend more time out in nature. At this time, when he was essentially living a naturopathic lifestyle, he had no idea that naturopathy was even a profession.
A lifechanging course
When a friend mentioned that a new course in naturopathy was about to be taught at Southern Cross University, Jason knew it was the perfect choice for him. Later, as part of his Honours and PhD, Jason was delighted to find himself working with Professor Steven Myers, researching all things leaky gut syndrome and dysbiosis. These topics resonated so strongly that they became part of his life's passion.
Jason continues to pursue his academic career and research in probiotics and gastrointestinal health while contributing to many professional development events. He is also a practising clinician and the proud co-owner of Hobart's landmark pharmacy, Gould's Natural Medicine, which has served the people of Tasmania and its surroundings since 1881.
As well as naturopathy, the centre offers nutritional advice, herbal medicine, osteopathy, acupuncture and more. The centre is a family affair with both Jason’s partner (Dawn Whitten – also a naturopath) and father-in-law (Greg Whitten) involved, the latter growing medicinal herbs on the Goulds Organic Farm, which are used to meet the busy practice needs of the apothecary and clinic.
"It’s brilliant to be involved with every stage in a herb’s lifecycle, from planting, harvesting and drying," says Jason. "Not many clinicians get to see the whole lifecycle of the herbs they’re using in practice and get to know and appreciate a medicinal herb on a deeper level."
Regarding patient education, Jason now feels he spends considerable time correcting misinformation. "Twenty years ago, when I first commenced clinical practice, we would spend most of our time educating our patients. We did not have to spend very much time refuting incorrect ideas, but now, there is a lot of myth-busting to do, and more of our time is spent on re-education," says Jason.
"For example, before seeing me some of my patients have diagnosed themselves with conditions that they don't have, and I have seen some of these patients who have inadvertently caused themselves harm by implementing restrictive dietary approaches or taking microbiota-harming interventions that they did not need based on information they read online."
Carnivores and ketogenesis
Correcting misinformation surrounding the microbiome is one of Jason's passions. Dietary practices – such as the carnivore diet and ketogenic diets – can severely damage the microbiome, something that he has seen firsthand in his patients. The longer patients have followed such diets, generally the more of a challenge it is returning the ecosystem to a more healthy, diverse, balanced state. He also observes substantial alterations to his patients ecosystems after antibiotic and proton pump inhibitor use. Antibiotic combinations are particularly potent in their capacity to induce long-term detrimental shifts in the gut ecosystem. Proton pump inhibitor use is perhaps more surprising, given this class of medicines is used mostly to treat gastroesophageal reflux, but research conducted over the past 5 years has shown PPIs to have a substantive negative impact on GI ecosystem diversity and cause a loss of species richness.
Reinoculating the human ecosystem
"As research builds, I hope that novel interventions will come to the fore. Interventions better able to reinoculate and repopulate the human ecosystem. These are sorely needed, as each generation of Westerners have ecosystems that are lacking in diversity and species richness compared to the one before. Research is now suggesting that even a single course of antibiotics can result in dramatic changes to the gastrointestinal ecosystem and permanent species extinction. This is worrying in that we know so little about the species we have already lost and the potential repercussions of their loss."
Faecal matter from Amazonian peoples and hunter-gatherers in Africa may well have the potential to reinoculate Westerners with species that have been lost over the last century, explains Jason. "We are becoming increasingly aware of the impact of global warming and climate change on the loss of animal and plant diversity in the Earth’s ecosystems, but we are also experiencing a massive loss in our internal ecosystems," Jason says.
“I think we’re seeing the consequences of this internal diversity loss now, with substantial increases in rates of chronic mental health conditions, allergies, autoimmune diseases and metabolic disorders in Western nations. Restoring and optimising the gastrointestinal ecosystem holds great promise in turning the tide of these conditions,” ends Jason.