Over 2000 years ago, Hippocrates told us to “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. He also told us that “All disease begins in the gut”. While that last sentence is not always true (certain genetic conditions may not begin in the gut, for example, although they are often triggered and/or exacerbated by the condition of our gut), it is fair to say that what we eat has an enormous influence on our health and ability to thrive.
Why would Hippocrates surmise that our guts are the seat of our health, or lack thereof? Our guts are home to trillions of bacteria; estimates of the number of bacteria we host range from three to ten times our own cells. That means that for every skin cell, lung cell, brain cell or blood cell we have, there are as many as 10 bacteria.
These bacteria, collectively known as our microbiome, play an integral role in our well-being. For a short list of some of their more impressive functions, consider the following:
Our gut bacteria have a tremendous impact on the effectiveness of our immune system. They help us manufacture certain vitamins, such as B vitamins and Vitamin K which play a major role in immune function. They also strengthen the epithelial lining of our intestines, so that pathogens are less able to penetrate this important barrier and get to the rest of our body. They also compete with these same pathogens for space and food, leaving fewer resources for the pathogens to use and flourish. One more important function is that they produce antimicrobial substances that kill off would-be invaders.
Our microbiome may also help in preventing obesity by regulating the hormones letpin and ghrelin, which in turn regulate our levels of hunger and satiation.
Gut bacteria produce up to 95% of the serotonin in our bodies, as well as a wide array of other important neurochemicals, all of which are important players in reducing anxiety and depression.
Bacteria in the gut produce enzymes and assist in creating an acidic environment to help us digest and absorb certain foods we can’t deal with on our own, thereby ensuring we obtain the nutrients we need.
Lack of diversity in gut bacteria have been implicated in the development of autism and cancer.
This is a small sampling of findings of much scientific research in the last few years alone. The microbiome has become a hot topic in the medical world.
So how does one go about tending their gut flora to its greatest advantage and reap the many benefits of a healthy, robust microbiome? I’m glad you asked! Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Eliminate (or at least drastically reduce) processed foods, particularly ones containing vegetable oils. Corn, soy and canola are the most problematic oils. Industrial vegetable oils start with GMO Roundup Ready seeds that go through a lengthy chemical process to extract, deodorize, and bleach the oil before bottling. These crops are heavily sprayed with Round-up, or glyphosate, which is an herbicide that also happens to be a potent antibiotic. It wreaks havoc with our gut bacteria, killing off the beneficial bacteria and creating a welcoming environment for pathogenic bacteria. This is just one of many problems with processed foods.
Eat probiotic-rich foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt and kefir, on a daily basis. All of these are easy, inexpensive and fun to make at home. If you buy yogurt, make sure you get full-fat, organic (preferably grass-fed) plain yogurt or kefir. The sugars and other additives in flavored dairy products are not good for you or your bacteria. Non-organic dairy is treated with many antibiotics, growth hormones and other gut-bacteria-unfriendly substances. See below for my current favorite sauerkraut recipe. Super-easy and delicious.
Use homemade broth liberally.
Eat slowly and mindfully, without “screen” distractions or work or other stressors interfering with your body’s ability to digest and assimilate the food you are eating. Stress while eating signals our body to shut down digestion and prepare for danger, real or not.
Reduce stress and get enough sleep. Our bodies are very sensitive to stress chemicals such as cortisone and adrenaline. These are important and necessary chemicals in our body, when produced in the right amounts at the right times. Too much or too continuous a level of them can wreak havoc on our guts and the rest of the body.
Avoid antibacterial soaps and harsh cleaning chemicals. Antibacterial soap can lead to superbugs (germs that are resistant or immune to antibiotics and other antibacterial agents). Harsh soaps can also reduce the acid-mantle of our skin (an important barrier between us and our environment), as well as kill the beneficial bacteria that live on our skin. When showering or bathing, use a mild soap, or try dry-brushing (before showering) in place of soap on occasion, and slather on almond or coconut oil when you are done, to help restore the proper acid balance to your skin.
Avoid the use of antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. Other medications, as well as the contraceptive pill, can have a detrimental effect on your microbiome, so research your options and make educated choices when it comes to medications.
What about probiotic pills? While probiotics can be helpful in some cases, they are not silver bullets. They are most likely to be effective when used as part of a broad and comprehensive holistic strategy for establishing a healthy microbiome. This includes eating nutrient dense foods as the foundation of your daily nutrition habit, maintaining a daily movement habit to help with stress and to get better sleep, and elimination of unnecessary and potentially detrimental medications.
Luscious Lemon-Dill Sauerkraut
Makes about ½ gallon of kraut
3 lbs savoy cabbage, about 1 medium sized head
½ lb watermelon radish
1 small red onion
3 - 4 tablespoons dried dill
3 - 4 tablespoons sea salt
2 lemons, juiced
Shred the cabbage, watermelon radish and onion using a food processor or sharp knife. Put in a large bowl and sprinkle the salt over the veggies.
Using your (clean!) hands, massage the salt into the veggies until they get juicy. The cabbage should be translucent and have a good amount of juice in the bottom of the bowl.
Add the dill and lemon juice, and mix in well.
Transfer to a half-gallon mason jar or two quart size jars. Pour any liquid in the bowl over the veggies and cover with extra filtered water if necessary. (Chlorine and/or fluoride in the water will kill the beneficial bacteria we want in the ferment.) The veggies must be completely submerged to avoid mold growing on top.
- Cover with a metal lid and let sit 4 - 6 weeks so your microscopic probiotic helpers can work their magic. A longer fermentation time leads to a stronger sour flavor. Try your ferment after 4 weeks and if you like the flavor, transfer to the refrigerator. If you like the flavor stronger, leave out for another couple weeks and try again. Enjoy!