I’ve always had an interest in bacteria for health – and now this subject is really coming to the fore, and I’m loving the new science bubbling up.
I used to suffer terribly with IBS in my early twenties. I also travelled to Uganda, at age twenty, and came back with Campylobacter Gastroenteritis. I’ve heard it can be terrible, but for an IBS sufferer, it was a breeze!
I think it was probably around that time that the thinking about bacteria started to take hold for real, as I imagined a war being fought in my intestines. My wonderful neighbour, who sadly passed away not too long ago, was a complete inspiration to me as I grew up. She used to make wonderful raw foods, drink kefir, and gave my family kombucha to try. But as a youngster, I didn’t get into it so much. But it definitely left me with some curious musings about bugs. Also, as I have a German father – sauerkraut and pickles are a common sight in the kitchen. So with this background of having an interest in bacteria, it didn’t take much to get me back into it again. My education came a few years ago as a WOOFer – volunteering on Organic farms in New England, a place I found to be totally inspiring. Switched on people, working hard, enjoying life, gardening, building strong communities and delighting in good homemade food.
My first taste of fermentation came when I worked on an organic farm and bakery in Vermont. A young farmer there was in charge of the kombucha. Kombucha is an effervescent feremnted tea drink. It was delicious, bubbly, tangy, and fresh and you could feel that it was definitely doing something good inside! There was also Switchel and Sourdough breads being drunk and made in great quantities in the bakery. Switchel being an apple/vinegary/honey fermented drink which was refreshing and sweet. The bookshelf was also host to a few books on fermentation by Sandor Katz, a bit of a celebrity amongst the back-to-the-earth folks that I stayed with. The previous farm, full of lovely, bubbly people also had his books in the kitchen. Perhaps there’s something to all this, I thought. Bubbly cultured drinks – bubbly cultured people.
On the truck into town to sell sourdough bread and fresh veggies, I took a lunch break and headed into the typical clapboard, blue and white book shop. (Sigh, I really, truly, adore the architecture and houses of New England. Swoon! Anyways…) I didn’t waste any time and found the book ‘Wild Fermentation’ by Sandor Katz easily. In fact the first book display I saw upon entering the charming bookshop was all about canning and storing vegetables. I felt totally surrounded by switched on people, gardening, storing and fermenting veggies. It was a cultural awakening. Wild Fermentation was a fascinating insight into culturing and fermenting foods practiced all over the world for thousands of years! I was hooked.
My time in New England came to an end, and I returned home with new muscles, a bit of extra weight (working in a bakery will do that for you) and a lot of pip and zest ready to put my new knowledge into practice.
I got onto an old forum I used to frequent, called Downsizer, about living within our means, and that of the Planet’s – and found someone with a Doctor friend in Devon with some kombucha. Before long I had my first ever SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) sitting on my kitchen counter. I lovingly brewed some sweet black and green tea for it, and my little kitchen-counter pet is still with me today!
Since then I’ve also made sauerkraut, and sourdough bread and drunk kefir and made yogurt a-plenty. I also ate unscrubbed, slightly dirty carrots from the garden without worrying about it. A bit of B12, I figured. Was it all worth it?
The new science emerging thick and fast says a resounding YES!
Here’s a blurb excerpt from the book The Good Gut, by Erica and Justin Sonnenburg.
“Our intestinal microbiota plays an important role in the prevalence of predominantly Western afflictions, such as cancer, diabetes, allergies, asthma, autism, and inflammatory bowel diseases. These gut bacteria are facing a mass extinction, and the health consequences are dire. The average person in the Western world has around 1,200 different types of bacteria residing in his or her gut. That may seem like a lot until you consider that the average Amerindian living in the Amazon has approximately 1,600 species and is much less likely to develop Western illnesses. How can we keep our microbiota off the endangered species list?”
It turns out that we have potentially a lot of bacteria inside us, a LOT. If you lined up these microscopic, invisible to the naked eye bugs, they would reach all the way to the moon. And if they were all piled up in a bowl, they’d weigh much more than your brain.
And like the diversity of nature we see all around us, it’s the same within us. There are many different strains of bacteria. Some good. Some bad. We know a lot about the bad guys, the e-coli, salmonella etc. But we only know a couple of good guys, Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, usually found in probiotic tablets, yogurt and drinks.
But it’s vitally important to have diversity inside us too. But why? Why should we care about our gut-bugs?
“Research over the past decade has accumulated a large body of evidence linking alterations in the gut microbial composition to several diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, arthritis, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Furthermore…intestinal microbiota also influence…organ morphogenesis, immune system and gastrointestinal tract development and maturation, intestinal vascularization, tissue regeneration, carcinogenesis, bone homeostasis, metabolism and behaviour.”
So science is starting to make the connections between lousy numbers of good gut bugs and certain illnesses.
A child born without going through the birth canal and being exposed to all sorts of stuff on the way out will instead have a microbiome more similar to that of the hospital, than that of its mother. And studies have seen how C-section children are more often asthmatic and overweight when they grow up. Now there is a practice of swabbing the birth canal and applying it all over baby, which builds up its first dose of healthy bacteria so that a strong microbiome gets started. We all know the power and immune boosting goodness that comes from breastmilk, but a lot of the benefits also come from the microbes being passed from mother to baby.
What is a microbiome? I love this explanation by author of The Wild Life Of Our Bodies, Rob Dunn.
A biome ….is a self-contained ecosystem, where all the organisms can interact with each other and the environment in which they live, for example a rain forest is a biome, but it is made of smaller biomes, for example a tree is a biome for insects, then a single insect is a biome for bacteria. Therefore, these smaller biomes are often called microbiomes, in the case of you, it’s your gut!… A microbiome is a small (micro) version of this larger phenomenon, a whole world within you.
(There’s a lot of good stuff to read on in American Gut 101 article here.)
A fascinating Ted Talk given by Rob Knight called How Our Microbes Make Us Who We Are showed us that microbes are now understood to play a greater role within us than we could have ever have imagined before.
Depression, anxiety, personality traits, obesity, cravings: all heavily influenced by our gut bugs.
A fascinating study showed two different mice. One obese. One regular sized. Both had different strains of bacteria within them. When they performed a fecal transplant (oh lovely) on these mice, bacteria from the obese mouse inside the regular mouse made that mouse become obese! And even more amazing, feces and bacteria from the regular mouse put inside the obese mouse made it equally as slim!
And here’s something worrying; if you don’t feed the right bugs the right foods, you could end up overfeeding others that become bowel dictators! Eat sugar – get more sugar loving bacteria – which may manipulate the gut brain to crave more sugar. A variety of food and especially plant fibre can feed all the good bacteria, so that you don’t create a dictatorship of sugar fiends.
So, as it is unhealthy to have a monoculture in nature – so it is equally unhealthy to have a monoculture of bugs inside us.
Which is why solely eating lacto-bacteria from whey and yogurt and cheese is not so great. We can do better.
Kombucha, sourdough, pickles, sauerkraut, vinegar, beer, wine, even good dark chocolate – these are all types of different fermentation processes that have numerous different strains of bacteria within them.
Apparently, the ones you can buy off the shelf just aren’t good enough. Not only do they only contain one strain, two at best– but there aren’t enough of them in one dose to make a significant difference. Plus the capsule shell they come in disintegrates in the stomach, where the bacteria dies.
Karl Seddon, a British scientist has been working on a new formula called Elixa. He says that these capsules are very high dose (3 Trillion CFU’s rather than 10 Billion in regular capsules), and have new technology capsule skin to get them into the intestines, where the microbes can set up camp and improve the diversity in your gut. I have recently purchased Elixa, as the creator is very approachable and answers consumers’ questions on different forums and blogs. I thought it was worth giving it a go. Two days in, so early days yet. Although there are some others on the market with 4+ strains, or with active soil based organisms within them.
Yes eating fermented foods is great, but they have to be in enough volume and consistency to make it through the stomach to the intestines. Not only that, but you have to feed them the right stuff – namely FIBRE!
Beans and lentils, root veggies and green leaves, seeds and yes grains can all offer a lot of fibre for the bacteria to digest. But resistant starch is also getting a look in – basically it is a form of insoluble fibre. The stuff that doesn’t digest but acts as a broom that makes it all the way into the gut and bulks up the stool. Resistant starch is found in some potatoes, ancient roots like yam, taro, cassava, etc. Typically hot country roots!
But that doesn’t mean that our European ancestors didn’t eat more wild roots. In fact, heritage type roots like carrots, beetroots and radishes will probably add different textures and fibres to a diet, rather than just sticking to one modern variety of carrots and potatoes. Variety outside – variety inside.
Erica and Justin Sonnenburg, authors of The Good Gut, and Sandor Katz of the Art of Fermentation, have written in their books about the nation’s obsession with antibacterial gels and wipes, and antibiotics. These are literally anti-life, and they will kill the good guys that help you heal, digest, think clearly, and function at your best, as well as killing the bad guys. So seriously, seriously reconsider a round of antibiotics if you don’t 100% need it.
The bottom line from this is – don’t fret about dirt!
Being around animals, getting soil under your fingernails, being out barefoot in grass – all these things contribute to a healthier body as they promote a healthier immune system and microbiota.
Common sense applies – wash hands after visiting the toilet, touching dogs, or after shopping. But don’t get so worried about organic veggies from the garden with a bit of soil on them, a bit of dirt on the carpet. Basically, we want to build up our good bacteria so they can overcome the times when we are exposed to the not-so-good microbes.
Before I started my journey with fermented foods, I was having a bad time with IBS and pains in my gut. Even going to hospital and being scanned, prodded and cameras put inside me. These days, my belly is much happier. I’m certain fermented foods played a part, but they did so alongside a calmer mind set (meditation and yoga) and healthier lifestyle. Stress is, after all, bad for our guts and the creatures that live inside of it.
From here on out, I am going to look after these little creatures who call me their home. They look after me, and I’m going to look after them too. For our, hopefully, long lives!
- Eat fermented foods – every day: Yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchee, gingerale, sourdough breads, apple cider vinegar etc. (Homemade if possible).
- Feed yourself and your bugs all sorts of FIBRE. Remember, there’s no fibre in meat. Legumes (beans and lentils and peas), leafy green veg, (kale, spinach, chard), colourful roots (carrots, radishes, beetroots, parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes), colourful veg (squashes, pumpkins, courgettes, aubergines, peppers, chillies). Fungi too.
- Think WHOLEgrain, and add variety and rotation: oats, wheat, rye, spelt – but keep the veg ratio high. Too much gluten may have a detrimental effect on our gut health. Try grain like seeds: quinoa, amaranth, millet etc.
- Bulk up your gut with chia seeds, psyllium husks, flax seeds etc.
- Consider taking a high dosage, multi-strain probiotic.
- Stay away, or drastically pare down on processed foods: hams and the like, flavoured yogurts, sugar free pops, white breads and white rice, biscuits, cakes, sweets, chocolate, fast food, trans fat (margarine, chips, crisps) etc.
- Eat the right fats – coconut oil, olive oil, nut and seed oils. Or better yet – whole fats. Avocadoes, nuts, seeds, etc.
- Don’t bleach everything within an inch of its life. Embrace some natural, organic dirt. Hug people, dogs, and trees!