Understanding fermentation and health

What is fermentation and how is it related to health and well being?

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The growing area of study linking human microbiota to health and wellbeing is seeing the development of new learning opportunities. The extent to which microorganisms on our skin and in our bodies meditate our lived experience can be understood through a free Coursera module, Gut check; exploring your microbiome. Maggie and I have completed the first two weeks, I thought potential future students might be interested in hearing more about what this course entails.

This MOOC is produced by the University of Colorado Boulder and the tutors are all linked to the institution; Professor Rob Knight, Dr. Jessica L. Metcalf and Dr. Katherine R. Amato.

As you might expect week one offers an overview of the subject area. Explanations are given for what microbes are in relation to each other (Bacteria, Archaea, Eukaryotes and Viruses) and all living organisms. The role of microbes more generally is explained before looking at how microbes and humans interact. Definitions include the distinction between human microbiota (a community of microbes), and the microbiota (the total genes in the microbiota).

The material highlights a number of interesting microbiome facts including that whilst humans share 99.99% of the same DNA, two humans may only have 10% of their microbiomes in common. This is one of the reasons why gut bacteria is thought to be influential in how we experience life. Although the majority of our microbes live in our gut, there are communities all over us (mouth, skin, vagina). We are born sterile and then communities of microbiota become established at a very early age, changes to these communities happen throughout our lives. The module material clearly illustrates that the microbes we are exposed to have an import role in our lives.

The first week provides a useful introduction to the subject and offers a context for later material. Beyond week 1, the course follows a much stronger academic path. Explaining the science behind the study of microbiota and moving onto subjects such as alpha diversity and ‘fuzzy microbes’. If you’ve tried the MOOC what do you think?

Some commercial probiotics found lacking when compared to traditional alternatives

Kefir appears to offer significantly greater benefit than commercially produced probiotic drinks.

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Dr Michael Mosley has been helping to run a study for the BBC  looking at the relative benefits to gut health from a range of products. Volunteers and scientists collaborated to try to discover which of three probiotics/prebiotics had the biggest positive impact on gut bacteria.

The first product was a commercially available drink, branded as a probiotic and available in major supermarkets. The second item up for comparison was kefir, a traditional milk and yeast fermented substance, a little like yogurt. These first two foods were compared with vegetables high in natural prebiotic fibre called inulin. Inulin is found in range of foods including chicory (chicory root is a rich source) and scallions (onions, leeks and garlic).

The poorest preforming of the three in this trial was the probiotic drink. The participants in this group demonstrated a modest (statistically non significant) change in lachnospiraceae gut bacteria. Conversely significant changes in gut flora were seen in the group consuming prebiotic fibre. The people that consumer kefir enjoyed the most positive increase to gut bacteria.

It should be pointed out that any comparison between prebiotics and probiotics is not a like for like test. Prebiotics deliver the food that supports existing bacteria and create the conditions for further colonization. A probiotic is intended to introduce microorganisms directly into the body.

The BBC study concluded that traditionally produced fermented foods (or even home made versions) may offer the greatest benefits to consumers in terms of increased gut flora. A key problem with mass produced fermented foods and drinks is pasteurisation. Pasturised goods are regarded as safer, which also correlates to a longer shelf life. By comparison traditionally made kefir has to be consumed in a relatively short space of time. This is perhaps the choice we consumers face, if we want maximum health benefits from the food we make or buy we may have to sacrifice some of the convenience of long sell by dates.

Red wine might help oral health

Polyphenols found in red wine may support oral bacteria able to inhibit tooth decay and gum disease

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Moderate red wine consumption has been associated with a range of health benefits. Many of the claims made historically have not been supported by the latest evidence. In any case, increasing alcohol consumption per se could have a negative health impact that outweighs any positive outcome. However research featured by the BBC this week is linking red wine to improved oral health by acting as a probiotic for mouth bacteria.

Recent research into red wine has highlighted the benefits of polyphenols, these are antioxidant compounds present in red wine, thought to fight harmful free radicals in humans. A recent study from Spain indicates that red wine may be able to exert a beneficial influence over damaging oral bacteria. The effect of polyphenols (caffeic and p-coumaric acids) were tested on the bacteria that can harm teeth and causes gum disease. Caffeic and p-coumaric acids were found to be more successful than grape seed and red wine oenological extracts at limiting the ability of bacteria to stick to cells. But when combined with an oral probiotics (streptococcus dentisani), the polyphenols ability to limit the growth of harmful bacteria (streptococcus mutans) was enhanced.

This is an initial study carried out on cells in a lab, not on actual people, it reflects a simplified or reduced approach. Results will need to be replicated in other studies and ultimately with humans. However the important point to take at this stage is that there is some evidence that wine appears to offer probiotic qualities to both mouth and gut bacteria. This isn’t a charter for people to increase wine consumption, the overall effect of drinking wine hasn’t been clearly established and it is likely to be different for each person. However this study offers yet more evidence of the important role of probiotics in human health.

Polyphenols are abundant micronutrients present in a wide range of foods and drinks, not just red wine. The extent to which any individual substance is able to deliver the health benefits of the polyphenols contained within it is still being researched. The ability of our body to digest and make available the polyphenols we consume is a key issue. Other foodstuffs rich in polyphenols include, blueberries, blackberries, cherries, green tea, black tea and coffee.

Understanding gut health

A basic guide to gut health, key terms defined and explained.

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Understanding gut health; 1 the basics

The scientific investigation of gut bacteria and its relationship to wellbeing is at a very early stage. There are discoveries every week that support, coexist with or contradict earlier findings. It’s a rapidly developing and dynamic area of human knowledge. The good news is, there are many resources available to anyone who wants to understand and take control of their own health through diet.

As a starting point there are a few concepts that are best understood at the outset. Not everyone uses these terms in the same way but try these definitions as a starting point.

Microorganism is widely used in talking about gut health, it is a general description for any organism that is too small to see with the naked eye. Some scientists prefer not to use the word but you are likely to come across it widely if you start reading about gut bacteria. Bacteria, viruses, archaea and fungi are all typically included in the term.

Microbiota  is generally used to denote the population of microbes in any given community or system. Flora appears to have largely the same meaning as microbiota and appears interchangeably. For example gut flora means the same thing as gut microbiota.

The aggregate of all the genes of an entire population of microorganisms  in any environment is described as a microbiome.

Typically scientists divide human microbiota into populations linked to their environment, such as skin, mouth, nose, digestive tract, and in females also the vagina. The largest population of microbes occur in the digestive tract, also known as the gut. Bacteria are the largest type of microbe in the human gut and bacteria reflects the dominant interest of scientific research. Gut bacteria are the main recipients of the benefits of prebiotics and probiotics, that is why the term gut bacteria and gut health is so prominent in media accounts of research findings. Technically speaking the plural of bacteria is bacterium but you will rarely see this outside of science journals, bacteria is typically used as the singular and plural form in most everyday situations.

A key point to make is that the gut has an important two way communication system with the human brain. That means to think of fermented food and drinks as only involved in what happens in the intestinal tract is a mistake. What we eat and drink has has the potential to exert a widespread influence across a number of systems.

Free course; bacteria and your health

As science begins to unravel the importance of gut bacteria to health and wellbeing, there’s never been a better time to learn about human microbiota.

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bacteria – crucial to your health

So what’s the big deal about the fermentation of food and drink? Why is there such an interest in it now when it’s been around for thousands of years? The growing ability of science to study microorganisms has opened up research linking the human microbiome to a range of health and wellbeing benefits. Even though this research is at an early stage, there are signs that our understanding of the human condition is entering a new era. Fermentation has a central role in this process, prebiotics and  probiotics may be able to make a significant contribution to the quality of our lives and the state of our health.

The awareness that fermented foods may be beneficial is a useful starting point, but there are resources available for anyone wanting to know more. Maggie and I have signed up for the Coursera MOOC, Gut Check; Exploring Your Microbiome. MOOCs are multiple open online courses; essentially short samples of higher and further education. They are typically free and offered by experts in their fields. All materials are available online, and a  study commitment of three to five hours for between four to eight weeks are required by students. There is usually an assessment required to complete a MOOC and a verified certificate may be available for a fee.

We will provide a weekly report of the Gut Check MOOC. But for anyone considering signing up for the course, it starts with a basic outline of the microbiome and microbiota (What is the human microbiome? What’s in your gut and how is the human microbiome studied?). It takes a little effort, but it is accessible to most people with a desire to learn and a basic knowledge of biology. This course is offered on the Coursera platform, there are other MOOC providers and free courses available in the same or similar areas of study. We welcome feedback about this or similar resources, feel free to enter your comments in the box below.

How to start home fermentation

Home fermentation, have you tried the Kilner fermentation set?

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Is a home fermentation kit necessary? For the occasional production of sauerkraut I’m not sure that special equipment is essential. Maggie has managed to keep us supplied with our fermented foods simply by using medium sized jam jars, and a range of normal kitchen utensils. The point she always stresses is that everything has to be clean. The fermentation vessel should be thought of as a bacterial incubator. If you incorporate harmful bacteria into the incubator it will inevitably grow quickly. You should throw any tainted product away , clean everything and start again. One of the many appealing aspects of home fermentation is the relatively low cost of fermenting produce. Consider that at current prices a liter of organic sauerkraut can be created for less than 50p (ten bob!).

I know that previous generation of home fermenters from Poland and Germany actually had a range of fermentation pots and tools that were accumulated through the course of married life (I don’t remember seeing any of these is the kitchen of my mother or grandmother).  In particular ceramic pots that were dedicated fermentation vessels. They had necks wide enough that a small plate or large saucer could be accommodated within to keep the  fermented product under the water level.

With the rising interest in home fermentation equipment has passed from specialist shops and online retailers into mainstream retail outlets. We purchased a Kilner fermentation kit at the weekend. Our primary motivation was to increase the volumes of our product. Not only has our own consumption increased but we are also sharing more with our own friends and family. It certainly seems that the public awareness of the benefits of fermentation is growing. The Kilner kit was fairly priced (£18) when compared to similar products and the fermenting jar was around the size we were looking for (3 liters). It all seems OK, we’ll report back when our first batch is ready (cabbage and carrot). We have no particular connection with Kilner, save that we use their 1liter fermentation jars already.

We’d be really interest in what other home fermenters use,  and any equipment related tips would be most welcome. Feel free to leave any suggestions, comments or feedback in the box below.

Help for migraine sufferers from bacteria

People suffering from migraines tend to have particular profile of bacteria linked to nitrate processing.

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I am keen not to overstate the potential of any individual scientific study. However this story highlights exciting news about a potential relationship between bacteria and migraines. In 2016 The Guardian featured a study that appeared to demonstrate a link  between the efficient break down of nitrates in humans and the occurrence of migraines. As I understand the research,  migraineurs (people that suffer from migraine) tend to have more nitrate reductase genes in both the mouth and in stool samples, than the wider population.

Nitrate reductase genes are responsible for processing nitrates in food and drinks, point being the greater their abundance the more efficient the nitrate processing. So getting more nitrates from food (compared to non migraineurs) may be linked to triggers for migraines. Obviously further research will be needed but the link between nitrates and headaches is not new. What this study is demonstrating is that the key might rest with the microorganisms in the mouth and gut.

Many migraine sufferers are aware of a relationship between certain foods and increased risks of attacks, through chocolate and wine for example. It is also known that certain drugs high in nitrates can provoke severe headaches. When broken down, nitrates lead to increased blood circulation in the cardio vascular system, this increase may be a key factor in migraines. The complexity of the human microbiome, particularly the gut-brain axis, makes demonstrating causality between food and health challenging. However this seems like a promising area of research. Controlling  the intake of foods high in nitrates might be a short term solution. But given that fruit and vegetables are rich sources of nitrates, cutting down on them could present a range of risks and benefits. For more information visit the Migraine Action or Migraine Trust websites.

We always welcome your feedback, comments in the text box below. Thanks for Peter for suggesting the subject and as always please read our disclaimer.