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!
The importance of the microbiome to human health is just starting to emerge, but our attitude to gut health hasn’t always been this enlightened.
Just a heads up for anyone interested in learning more about the changing relationship between humans and gut health. A short series The Gut Instinct: A Social History has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 this week over five 15 minute episodes. At the time of writing the transmissions were still available on the BBC iPlayer here.
The concept was to explore how humans related to digestive processes and gut health across culture and time. There’s a lot of general information linked to the microbiome, some directly relevant to us today. The programme was written and presented by restaurant owner Tim Hayward and it seeks to offer an account relevant to a general audience, setting out major historical landmarks as well as important contemporary issues. Unusually for a British show, we actually hear adults talking about bowel movements and human waste in a practical and informative manner. The five-episode titles reflect the general content of the series (Gut Culture, A Window into the Gut, The Language of the Gut, The Disease of Civilisation and The Gut Speaks). Don’t expect much detailed science but I’d imagine anyone who tunes in to pick up some new morsels of gut knowledge, total listening time is just 75 minutes.
Diet is becoming a crucial factor in maintaining estrogen levels in post menopausal women.
Menopause and health, diet is crucial
The number of women living with the menopause is growing, therefore more people are at risks from illnesses connected with life after the menopause. A recent study investigating estrogen levels and gut health in post menopausal females found a relationship between microbial diversity (the different types of microbes) and circulating estrogen. The implications of this are huge because low estrogen is linked to a wide range of health issues. Typically the diversity of microbes in the human digestive system (gut microbiota) can be altered with changes to diet, for example a greater emphasis on plant based foods, and the use of probiotics and prebiotics. This suggests that women’s health generally, including fertility might be improved simply through alterations to diet.
One of the most important factors in the amount of circulating estrogens in women is the gut microbiome (the population of microbes in our gut). The greater the diversity of gut bacteria generally speaking the higher the levels of estrogen will be. Low levels of estrogen are associated with a wide range of illnesses in older women such as: obesity, cancer, polycystic ovary syndrome, heart disease and even cognitive function. It is suggested that bariatric surgery, fmt and medication (metformin) can alter the gut microbiome and therefore limit estrogen-driven disease. But the evidence suggests that changes to diet alone may be able to have a significant impact on estrogen levels
I’d like to highlight four of the issues raised by the research:
There appears to be a strong relationship between what women eat and levels of circulating estrogen.
Different treatments exist to increase estrogen, but dietary changes alone might deliver significant benefits.
The benefits of increased circulating estrogen through improved diet may be available to women of any age and might be linked to improved fertility.
This study reflects a general pattern in health seen in human microbiome research, that a healthy gut is linked to reduced risks of developing a wide range of illnesses.
Latest study links processed meat to increased risks of breast cancer.
Latest research confirms processed meat increases breast cancer risk
I generally have mixed feelings writing about lifestyle choices correlated with increased risks of cancer. I don’t think provoking people’s fear is usually beneficial and I don’t see my role as pushing people towards or away from things that I feel are important. Even as a vegetarian and now a non-strict vegan I have never found that scare tactics draw people into thinking about their own wellbeing or that of others. I do retain however a genuine sense of gratitude to the people that educated me about the relationship between diet, gut bacteria and mental and physical health. So if I highlight the latest research reviewing the dangers of eating processed meats it does reflect my own thoughts but I hope that it offers readers the opportunity to make an informed choice about what they eat.
An understanding of the health risks of eating animal products has been around for decades, and the scientific evidence of potential dangers linked to meat consumption increase week to week. The latest study to hit the media, reports that women who eat processed meat products such as bacon and sausages, have a 9% increased risk of breast cancer compared to women eating low levels of those products. This is not the first (nor the last I’ll bet) study that links meat with increased risks of developing cancer. But once you look into this issue further you realize that eating processed meat is a triple whammy! Firstly you have the statistically evidenced increased risk of breast cancer, secondly there are also greater risks of a wide range of other health problems. But also that while you’re eating potentially harmful animal products you are not consuming health supporting fresh fruit and vegetables.
As a society we know that the mass, unthinking consumption of animals and animal products isn’t helping us individually or benefiting the wider society. I’m an advocate of a healthy diet based primarily on plants, including fermented products. The indications are that even if you eat fresh fruit and vegetables alongside your processed meats, the benefits to your gut health are going to be limited. A final point to consider is that if we know that the type and quality of the food we eat affects our own health, what is the impact on us of the diet of the animals we consume? If animals are being reared in harsh unsanitary conditions, dependent on antibiotics for their survival and with poor quality fodder, should we be surprised if eating them increases our risks of poor health?
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.