Transforming health and wellbeing through fermentation
As a researcher working with the contemplative sciences, the key role that food has in health and wellbeing became evident to me. From there it was a small step to realize that fermentation and gut bacteria play an essential part in our lives. Do yourself and your loved ones a favour, check out the evidence linking gut bacteria and health now!
Evidence is mounting that there is a relationship between what we eat and dementia.
I trained as a cognitive scientist/neuroscientist originally because I wanted to know more about how people could lower their risks of developing dementia in general and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in particular. My interest in fermentation comes from exposure to research indicating that gut bacteria is correlated to a range of physical and mental health conditions. That if you have too many or two few of certain types of microbes within your digestive tract, then you are more likely to experience better or worse health.
Imagine my interest then when I receive details of research that stated,
“All the results suggest that AD may begin in the gut.”
This conclusion from Hu, Wang and Jin appeared in their 2016 study Alzheimer’s disease and gut microbiota. Clearly if the results stand up and can be replicated this will change much of what we know about AD, and how it might be treated. There is a growing body of research that has linked AD to diet, it is widely discussed in the vegan and vegetarian communities. But Hu, Wang and Jin take the current thinking further; that AD is not just linked to what we eat per se’ but the prebiotic and probiotic effects of our diet. This research suggests that future treatments for AD are likely to come in the form of dietary or microbiotial interventions. The investigation covers a wide range of evidence, the scientists also draw attention to known links between gastrointestinal diseases and reduced cognitive function as well as Parkinson’s Disease and abnormal levels of gut microbes. If you’re puzzled as to how the gut influences the brain, look into the gut- brain axis.
As a general rule I’m cautious about the findings of academic studies dealing with complex areas of human health like AD. There are such a wide range of factors able to influence wellbeing that to isolate and demonstrate causality is not a simple matter. There is also evidence linking a number of other behaviours (meditation, mindfulness) to reduced risks of neurodegeneration. So that if there is a correlation between both meditation and gut bacteria with lower risks of developing AD, we need to think about how it might work.
Anyone who has been around the meditation community for a while may have noticed a few things about regular meditators. They tend to be relatively calm and their diet and lifestyle tends to be a little different from the mainstream. For example I’ve observed that meditators appear to smoke tobacco and drink alcohol less than the general population. Anecdotally I have found more vegans and vegetarians in the meditation community than my non-meditating friends. You can see from these speculative ideas that the relationship between gut bacteria and AD could hold up even given the evidence linking meditation to lower risks of neurodegeneration.
Whilst this study in isolation does not prove that AD begins in the gut, it signposts further areas of potential research. We now need to look for more specific evidence and ‘joined up’ explanations. It seems that there has never been a better time to think about the benefits of bringing fermented food into your diet and protecting your gut health as far as possible.
Cabbage offers vital support in resistance to cancer. New research suggests new molecular evidence.
This blog reflects a growing interest in the benefits of consuming fermented food as a way of improving health and wellbeing. Cabbage is a popular vegetable in Europe, and it is one of the simplest things to start fermenting at home. Most parents would have urged their children to ‘eat up your greens’ at some point, but the real value of this advice is only just starting to emerge. Cabbage is part of the cruciferous family (brassicas) which includes lots of vegetables long associated with a healthy diet such as kale and broccoli (wasabi and horseradish too incidentally). Including them in your diet has long been recognised as a good idea. With a growing understanding of the link between lactic acid fermentation and good gut health, cabbage is being thought of as a superfood, able to increase protection against a wide range of health problems.
News published today on the BBC website adds yet another dimension to the benefits of eating cabbage. Scientists at the Francis Crick Institute have identified anti-cancer chemicals created in the process of digesting brassicas, including cabbages. It is supposed that a chemical (indole-3-carbinol) created when cabbage is broken down in the body, encourages the healthy renewal of the bowel lining. The cited research was not carried using fermented cabbage, however the long standing association between sauerkraut consumption and healthy bowels suggests to me that fermentation may have a favorable link with indole-3-carbinol production.
This research was carried out on mice so how it translates to humans is as yet uncertain (is the use of mice really necessary?). And as already mentioned this wasn’t a study on fermented cabbage.
Finally I just want to remind everyone of the importance of eating organically whenever possible. In a recent court case in the US, a man was awarded £226m in damages after claiming that his cancer was caused by a weedkiller that included the compound glyphosate. Despite being developed by a powerful chemical company (Monsanto), glyphosate has been attracting health concerns for some considerable time. France plans to ban it’s use within three years and at least one study by the UN argued it is probably carcinogenic in humans. While washing vegetables before consumption is always good practice, many chemicals used in agriculture like glyphosate are absorbed through foliage and roots. I’m uncertain of the extent to which glyphosate is present in the production of brassicas, but going organic is the only way to be sure.
Lentils appear to have an important role to play in human health and wellbeing., particularly obesity.
A simple message; loose weight and improve your health by eating lentils.
I’m not really an advocate of taking the pleasure out of eating food, people must choose to eat what they want, what they can afford and what suits their lifestyle. I am however disappointed with the lack of relevant health messages provided for consumers (it is in some regards why this blog was started). I think the humble lentil illustrates this point particularly well. Lentils (in general) have a number of qualities not widely known about or discussed in the mainstream, they are high in fibre, low in fat, good sources of protein, they are widely available, easy to grow and relatively inexpensive. It should also be mentioned that they are ingredients in some very popular dishes including soups, stews and daals. Lentils are good for us on so many levels that the government and the NHS should be funding extensive lentil related research and promotions. We also now know that lentils are an excellent prebiotic.
In the context of food, prebiotics are fibre able to pass through the digestive system to the large bowel (colon), where they feed and thus encourage the growth of helpful bacteria.
At around 1% fat, lentils are a useful addition to the food cupboards of people striving to maintain a healthy body weight. There is also evidence that their prebiotic effects may also offer support in the fight against obesity. There is a growing body of scientific research suggesting that less calories and more prebiotics are correlated with lower levels of obesity. Prebiotics are now known to increase the quality and quantity of gut bacteria in the colon and lead to the augmentation in the production of short chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFA are linked to both increased efficiency in the use of calories and decreased obesity. Overall, the evidence suggests that eating lentils regularly is associated with reductions in levels of obesity. Lentils also tend to make you feel full, which has obvious implications for health and diet.
Another key issue to mention is that lentils are high in protein, up to 20g in a 100g serving. This is particular useful for vegans and vegetarians whom sometimes struggle to find enough protein in plant based food. As well as protein you can expect to receive significant proportions of wider nutritional needs in from lentils, such as around half your daily recommended intake of Thiamine (B1), VB6, Folate (B9), Iron, Phosphorus and Zinc.
It should be pointed out again that lentils are tasty and versatile, their consumption doesn’t have to be a chore. The take home point is that by eating lentils three or four times a week you might be able to significantly improve your health and wellbeing in a number of ways. Always interested in receiving and publishing your lentil recipes!
To fully explore the benefits of lentils would require a series of articles but if anyone is interested in the specific role lentils have in reducing obesity, take a look at the work by Dil Thavarajah , Pushparajah Thavarajah, Casey R. Johnson and Shiv Kumar here.
Your diet can play a significant role in your chances of becoming obese, suffering from asthma or a range of other illnesses.
Discovery, a general science programme from the BBC World Service, has put together a helpful three part guide to the human microbiome. It is made for the wider World Service audience so it presents the issues in an interesting but accessible way. The discussion of the subject matter is engaging, and important contributions are made by leading scientists in the field such as Prof Rob Knight, from the University of California and Prof Tim Spector from Kings.
The show provides a general outline broken down into three parts; Manipulating Our Hidden Half, Dirt and Development and Gateway to the Mind. The idea that humans (in common with other animals) have not one but two genomes is central to this mini series. Our human genome is the one handed down to us through our parents, set in stone at conception. The so called second genome is made up of a vast pool of genetic diversity present in the microbes found throughout and within our bodies. The Human Microbiome Project has begun the process of analyzing the large number of microbes present in us. Two key issues that have started to excite scientists in recent years are,
the extent to which microbes can influence human health and experience.
the ability of individuals to alter their own microbial profile.
For example, it is generally observed that increased diversity of different kinds of helpful bacteria in the gut, is correlated with improved wellness. Studies in obesity, allergies, asthma and auto immunity suggest that gut bacteria may have a crucial role in meditating our health. This opens up the prospect that lifestyles remedies such as changes to diet may offer us significant potential benefits. It also raises the question about the long term benefits of medication known to have a detrimental affect on gut bacteria such as antibiotics.
This then takes us back to the discussion of probiotic and prebiotic food and drinks. When you consume products rich in helpful bacteria (probiotics) or the soluble fibre known to support microbial diversity in the large intestine (prebiotics), you are likely to be improving your health in a number of ways. It cannot yet be said that there is a direct causal relationship between your diet and certain illnesses. However the scientists are starting to think of gut bacteria as increasing or decreasing the chances of suffering from particular health problems.
At the time of writing all three programmes were freely available online or to download here.
There may be a relationship between kefir and obesity.
I’m becoming increasingly convinced of the benefit of fermentation, that enriching beneficial gut bacteria has widespread effects on wellbeing and health. I’m still near the beginning of this journey and learning all the time. I’ve posted a series of articles linked to kefir, not because I’m an expert, but based of the apparent benefits accrued over the last two months from a small glass of kefir each day. I should also say that Maggie has lost a lot of weight over the time she has been drinking kefir, but, she has also been exercising. However weight loss isn’t my only reason for writing about this subject. A few months ago I felt obliged to take a course of antibiotics, I think it was a mistake ( I am aware of the downsides of this kind of medication) but it’s water under the bridge now. The subsequent decline in my overall health was striking. I started to have trouble concentrating and sleeping, I got a cold, suffered from reflux and saw an augmentation in weight.
I didn’t really connect these things with the antibiotics until I noticed that my bowel movements changed significantly. If you are new to the gut bacteria scene you might feel a little uncomfortable around talk about bowel movements, don’t be. A regular healthy bowel movement is one of the signs of a healthy balance in gut bacteria. So when I noticed I wasn’t going to the toilet regularly I though about the possible impact of antibiotics on my gut. I started to take kefir more regularly whilst keeping my usual prebiotic and probiotic consumption at the same level. The difference was gradual but pretty much everything started to improve after about five days. Two months later things are back where there were before the antibiotics. I’m much healthier, bowels are back to normal and……..I’ve lost weight without any exercise.
This isn’t a morality narrative about the harm of antibiotics. I believe antibiotics represent a life saving technology, and in the right place and time are essential. It’s their inappropriate overuse which I think is harmful.
My own anecdote is that I think it took two months to return the state of my gut bacteria to somewhere like normal, and I am a daily consumer of natural prebiotics and probiotics. In all of this story things pretty much fitted my modest understanding of the underlying science except the weight loss. I know that lack of diversity in gut bacteria is correlated with obesity generally but I hadn’t come across any research papers linking kefir to weight loss. If you can improve your gut health and pull your body weight closer to its optimum level this has to be a win-win. So I started to look through the scientific literature. The most recent research is featured here.
Are their differences in traditional and commercial kefir?
This is the second part of the feature, you’ll find part one here.
Despite my scientific training, regular followers of my blogs will have realized I have an established scepticism for extravagant scientific claims. I am a fan of science generally but feel the need to maintain a discriminating eye and treat each scientific claim on its merits. However a recent study into the relationship between kefir and obesity has been worth a closer look.
In a research paper titled Traditional kefir reduces weight gain and improves plasma and liver lipid profiles more successfully than a commercial equivalent in a mouse model of obesity, Bourrie, Cotter and Willing found that kefir appeared able to meditate metabolic health. This study compared the ability of traditional with commercially produced kefir to mediate mouse weight gain, plasma cholesterol, and liver triglycerides. Four traditional and one commercially available kefirs were used in the experiment. Commercial kefir was shown to have no beneficial effect whilst two of the traditional kefirs demonstrated a reduction in the rate of weight gain and increase in blood cholesterol. This was (as far as I know) the first ever study comparing mass produced with traditionally produced kefir, so the research must be regarded as preliminary. It was a study with mice so the extent to which results can be generalised to humans is uncertain.
The research concluded that when also considered in relation to the modulation of the gut microbiome, traditional kefir has the potential to mediate obesity through the improvement to metabolic dysfunction.
The report also explained that different forms of traditional kefir do not generate identical microbial populations. It is assumed that this could be linked to variable health benefits. Further that whilst Lactobacillus, Lactococcus, and Leuconostoc would be expected to be found in most forms of kefir, acetic acid bacteria was not found in a majority of commercial products. Research has also suggested that traditional kefir possesses highly complex fungal communities (including, S. cerevisiae, Pichia fermentans, Kazachastania unispora, and Kluyveromyces marxianus and lactis) not always found in commercial products.
In conclusion, three take home points:
This is preliminary research, it’s early days!
Traditional kefir may support improved cholesterol and fatty acid metabolism.
Traditional kefir appear to offer a much greater microbial diversity to the host than commercially produced kefir.
Having been experimenting with DIY kefir for a while, I thought it was time to share some of the key points we have discovered. This is not an exhaustive guide, follow this link for more general resources. The first thing to consider is that kefir is created by fermenting bacteria, therefore you need to follow reliable instructions. Our ten point guide contains tips that may help you on your way to a more positive experience.
Decisions, decisions, decisions: Kefir can be made using powdered culture or live/dehydrated grains. You can also use a range of liquids to create kefir, milk, water, juice, coconut milk etc. There are subtle differences in how you approach these different processes. Think about it before you start.
Cleanliness: Given that you are going to be growing bacteria you do not want to introduce anything that will pollute or taint your product. Make sure everything that comes into contact with the kefir is as clean as possible.
Quality: I generally aim to use good quality milk/juice/water in order to have the best quality product.
Water: Chlorinated water (tap or bottled) is generally felt to be unsympathetic to both the grains and the product so aim to use filtered water as far as possible in your fermentation operations. Don’t expose the grains to very hot or very cold water.
Temperature: Typically milk takes around 20 – 24 hours to ferment into kefir at a room temperature of 22–25°C. If this sounds imprecise it reflects the range of factors linked to production. A golden rule is to try and avoid extremes of hot and cold.
Observation: At the outset check the fermentation process regularly, you can’t expect consistency in kefir production unless you control all of the relevant factors. In a normal family kitchen having the oven on or windows open can change the time needed for optimum fermentation. I always check the product (visually) after 12 hours and thereafter at regular intervals.
Avoid: Don’t use of anti-bacterial hand cleaners when working with fermented product.
Manage the grains: Most of the advice says you can handle the grains but your hand should be spotless.
Augmentation: Grain populations increase over time, you will have to remove grains every two weeks or so to keep the fermentation process stable.
Cleanliness again: After every batch make sure that all containers, implements and any gauze or cheesecloth covers are as clean as possible.