The overuse of antibiotics is a major health concern. Probiotics may support the lower consumption of antibiotics by boosting overall health in humans and animals.
I am in the process of writing a basic guide to probiotics, but a general description is,
‘microorganisms contained in some food and supplements that have proven and assumed benefits to human and animal health’.
A key point at the outset is that it is hard to prove causality in such matters. Demonstrating correlation (people that have particular gut bacteria tend to have or not have a particular illness) is much simpler. The evidence linking probiotics and health is both causal and correlational. The point of probiotics is to change (improve) the profile of gut flora so that it has more positive and less negative microorganisms. This is a long road of which we are at the beginning.
Antibiotics are drugs designed to destroy or inhibit the growth of bacteria harmful to humans, animals or other organisms. I acknowledge the potential lifesaving benefits of antibiotics, they are an important part of modern healthcare. But the widespread overuse of antibiotics in industrialized societies is creating superbugs, bacteria that are resistant to all known antibiotics. This problem was the subject of the film Resistance which I recently saw on Netflix. The issue of superbugs is not new and the discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming discussed resistance in the mid 1940s. If you subject bacteria to an effective antibiotics most will die off, but surviving bacteria can develop resistance to that antibiotic. If you repeat the process often enough you risk creating bacteria over time, that become resistant to every antibiotic they have been exposed to.
Sometimes humans are given antibiotics when they are not needed, and so we may carry around bacteria that have a resistance to some antibiotics, this is a problem in itself. A key point that the film Resistance makes is that contemporary farming methods can involve the routine administration of antibiotics to hundreds of millions of animals every year. Antibiotics appear to make some animals grow bigger, thus increasing their cash value. However intensively farmed animals can live in insanitary conditions, exposed to fecal matter for most of their lives. Forcing animals to live in an environment where high levels of dangerous bacteria are present, thus necessitating the use of antibiotics as a routine measure, can be described as a perfect breeding ground for superbugs.
The standards of animal welfare vary from country to country and the use of antibiotics in the EU generally is lower than some other parts of the world. But it’s still a major problem according to a recent report. Conceptually the idea of eating animals is increasingly unacceptable to many people. However the logic of forcing animals to live in terrible conditions their whole lives, only sustained by large amounts of antibiotics is obviously flawed. Not only are people eating animals that have endured life long suffering underpinned by the consumption of drugs. But this process may also be creating bacteria resistant to those drugs. The use of last-resort antibiotics for humans such as colostin, is increasing according to official data. When colostin is used it can indicate other antibiotics were ineffective against the harmful bacteria.
So what has this got to do with fermentation and probiotics? Firstly antibiotics generally kill and inhibited some good bacteria. Where health is at risk this is clearly an appropriate course of action. However as the importance of gut flora to health becomes better understood we should consider the need to maintain gut bacteria at healthy levels. Secondly the better our overall health the lower the risk of illness and presumably the less need there will be to take antibiotics. Just to be clear, probiotics are not a substitute for antibiotics, there are some very dangerous bacteria in our environment for which antibiotics may be the only cure. My position is to abandon the overuse of antibiotics in animals and humans so that when we (and animals) get really sick we will have antibiotic treatments that continue to work. The third point is eating animals that have lived a life in potentially dangerous bacteria, sustained by routine antibiotic consumption seems irrational. Wouldn’t it make more sense to maintain animals in healthy conditions, with feed rich in probiotics, reducing the need for antibiotics in all but essential cases?
Is temperature linked to the quality of your sauerkraut?
In the short time we have been running this blog we have been asked about the optimum temperature for the fermentation process to take place. We have successfully fermented a range of foodstuffs at room temperature, let’s say from 18oC to 22o. There is no method in this, it is simply that Maggie was brought up to leave the fermenting vegetables in the kitchen or a heated utility room. As such we’ve never been tempted to leave them in the garage or garden shed. As different types of cabbage take different amounts of time to ferment into sauerkraut, it always seemed likely that temperature is a variable in the process.
I eventually became impatient not knowing, I was also intrigued by the idea that the quality of our own sauerkraut fermentation could be qualitatively improved by allowing it to take place at a slightly lower or higher temperature. The first two science papers I found dealing with the issue didn’t offer explicit conclusions, however third time lucky! India is one of the world’s big producers of cabbage, the spoiling of the raw cabbage before it gets to the consumer is a significant problem. So Indian interest in fermentation is something that is culturally relevant but also has commercial implications. An article in the Indian Journal of Ecology from 2017, Effect of Temperature on Fermentation and Quality of Sauerkraut provided a lot of useful data.
In an experiment, Pran Krishna Thakur, Payel Panja and Jahangir Kabir tested the quality of sauerkraut produced at a low (15o-20o C), ambient (25o-30o C) and high (35o-40o C) temperatures. The paper is well written if you’d like to know more about yeast and bacterial profiles of sauerkraut fermentation at different temperatures follow the link. However the headline is that the sauerkraut was of a higher quality when fermented at the lower temperature (15o-20o C). This is in line with the general advice, however it’s worth noting that the experiment was undertaken with the shaan variety. I suspect that there may be some variability with different types of cabbage, but that’s a story for another day.
Show someone your love by taking an interest in their long-term health and wellbeing. Fermentation is a game changer.
The media (traditional and social) are full of valentine news, view and suggestions. Local traders, shops and supermarkets have an overwhelming array of products linked to St Valentine’s day. However the way in which you decide to treat your loved one says a lot about you. Whilst chocolates, Champagne or roses spring immediately to mind they may by simple clichés of what people are supposed to give, rather than lasting indications of love.
Perhaps a different approach would be to offer your partner (and yourself) something likely to offer nourishment and a lasting health benefit. It is easy to overstate the qualities of naturally fermented probiotics. But we can feel confident that they are likely to make a long lasting contribution to wellbeing in a number of ways. Evidence is starting to emerge that positive gut flora, may be correlated with, stable weight, and generally improved physical and mental health across a number of measures.
Clearly probiotics are not just for February the 14th, and moving towards a healthy diet is a long term project. But talking about fermented foods or trying them for the first time, may be a great way of showing your partner that you really care, and that you want them to enjoy the best possible health. When you create fermented foods at home, not only are your own family exposed to the product, but the idea and your positive actions can influence a wide circle of friends. Something that can’t be said of a bottle of fizz or a bunch of roses.
Whatever you do, and whoever you do it with have a great day.
How to make simple sauerkraut, a traditional homemade fermentation recipe, suitable for beginners, inexpensive but very healthy.
This a very simple recipe illustrating how easy it is to to make healthy fermented foods. Sauerkraut is a perfect starting point for your first fermentation project, it is quick, low cost and will provide plenty of gut friendly bacteria. Those little friends will work for you, supporting your immune and digestive systems, helping you to feel great physically and mentally. This is based on a traditional recipe from my family, quite literally passed on from mother to daughter for generations. If you are interested in a technical explanation of how fermentation and probiotics works, and what the evidence is for the health benefits, follow the link to resources at the foot of the page.
around 1kg cabbage (finely sliced)
1 medium carrot (grated)
salt (unprocessed, such as sea salt, do not use table or iodised) – proportion for cabbage to salt: 1kg of cabbage to 20 grams of salt
2 bay leaves
4 allspice berries
make sure everything is perfectly clean, (the containers, utensils, work surfaces, chopping boards) as you want only good bacteria to grow
take off first layer of leaves from your cabbage, also remove any damaged leaves
finely cut or shred it
grate the carrot
mix it in a big bowl
add salt and massage it in until cabbage starts release its juice then leave it for about 10 min
you may wish to use a wooden vegetable stomper to squeeze more juice (different names for the same tool are pounder or tamper)
put 1/3 of your mixture in a ceramic pot or you can use a glass jar, just make sure it is sterilised
add 1 bay leave and 2 allspice berries
add another 1/3 of the cabbage
add 1 bay leave and 2 allspice berries
squeeze it until brine covers all of the cabbage (it needs to stay submerged throughout the fermentation process)
put the pot or jar on a plate just in case it spills out of the jar, the level will rise, if you use a glass jar don’t allow the product to make contact with a metal jar lid
you can use a weight to keep the cabbage immerse or even a small (clean) plate
Leave for 5-6 days and voila 😉
Do not use a metal bowl or metal utensils as they will react with salt, sorry to be a bore but everything must be clean, any harmful bacteria you introduce may taint the product. Make your first batch small, then scale up. Remember with fermented vegetables you win in many ways you get the nutritional value of the ingredients plus the probiotic benefits.
Please leave feedback about this or your own fermented recipe in the comments section lower down the page.
What is gut health? How much does science really know. Where can you get more information from?
The interconnected relationship between microbes and humans is an increasing object of research and general public interest. Microbial communities are all around us, on the equipment you are using now to view this article, in your home, place of study or work. Crucially microbes have a significant presence on our skin and inside our bodies, particularly in the digestive tract, with the highest concentrations found in the colon. It should be pointed out the the consumption of fermented foods is linked to a positive, increased richness in gut flora.
Over the last decade advances in technology have led to improved understanding of the collection of bacteria, fungi and archaea (single cell microorganisms) that make up the human microbiome. More importantly there are ongoing attempts to understand the relationship between an individual’s microbiome and their health and wellbeing. In scientific terms the study of the human microbiome is in its infancy, but there are already a wide range of studies linking microbes living in the human gut to health and wellbeing. Elizabeth Bik has written a journal article outlining this general area of research and its challenges and opportunities. I would recommend The Hoops, Hopes, and Hypes of Human Microbiome Research to anyone wishing to get an overview.
The Bik article was published in 2016, and reflects one perspective (albeit a particularly well informed insight). A search on Google Scholar this morning (13th February 2018) for the term microbiome found over 20,000 entries; each entry likely to correspond to a journal article, book/book chapter, or other document. The point being, that this is a rapidly evolving area of enquiry. The types of human experience which appear to correlate with the microbiome is growing and includes; memory, obesity, depression, cancer, Crone’s disease, the immune system and much, much more. However as Elizabeth Bik points out in her article, the fact the certain microbes are correlated with a particular condition does not necessarily mean they cause it or are caused by it.
If you have a particular interest in gut health my advice is to find some good quality journalism as a starting point. If you need something more then go to the best scientific papers available. In my humble opinion, using one article or piece of research rarely builds a full enough picture. If you find out anything interesting feel free to email us or add it to the comments section below.
How far should we take responsibility for what we eat?
A conversation with a colleague and a question received by email prompts me to remind anyone reading this blog that science is limited in many respects. Scientific claims can be overstated and results can sometimes come about by chance! Our own approach is to consider all evidence on its merits but to apply our own common sense. I would urge everyone else to do the same. Any good scientist is likely to know about the limitations of their findings, and they should be highlighted in their research papers. I would hope for this to be reflected by journalists writing about science.
Part of the motivation for creating this blog is to take a bit more responsibility for my own health, and to encourage others to do the same. We can’t do without reliable high quality science, but that doesn’t mean that research published by scientists or academics is necessarily correct, or should be taken seriously.
In my own field of psychology/contemplative science, research is a starting point and needs to be treated with a healthy scepticism. Once a particular concept has been successfully tested a number of times (replication), only then can it start to be considered as potentially reliable. So if you read something on these pages that interests you, follow the links and check out the source material. And keep the concepts at arms’ length until you feel you can fully engage with the material. All the views expressed on this website are opinions of the contributors and or people writing about gut health. they may not reflect the views of the website owners and must be read in relation to the respective scientific research. Please read our disclaimer.
There is growing evidence that gut bacteria is linked to obesity. Preliminary experiments with mice appear to be supported by human studies.
Ongoing research into the role of the microbiome (bacteria in the gut) in human wellbeing is at a very early stage. But the frequency of media headlines linking gut bacteria to health is growing. As with all areas of science, claims which have not been verified in clinical trials and subsequently replicated must be treated with caution. Nevertheless the evidence of a relationship between gut microbiome diversity and obesity has been repeatedly demonstrated in mice.
The microbiome is a term used to describe all of the genetic material of a microbiota, the entire range of microorganisms present in a particular context, in this case the human gut.
There have been a number of studies which show that obese mice tend to have fewer different types of gut bacteria than thin mice. The thinking is that a greater range of gut bacteria is likely to positively influence the way that the digestive system breaks down food. Having more (types of) bacteria is linked to efficient processing of what we eat, with the results of a tendency not to be obese. Recent research reported in The Independent looked at the weight gained by 1,632 female twins over nine years. The study calculated that only 41% of the weight increase could be explained by genetic factors.
On closer inspection it was estimated that becoming slimmer or maintaining the same weight was connected to the consumption of dietary fibre (typically found in whole grains, fruit and vegetables). The study also discovered that the women who had gained weight, had a lower diversity of gut bacteria. These findings were in line with similar studies with mice. Although not yet conclusive the overall evidence linking the shape of our body and the composition of our microbiome is growing.