gut health

Gardening Baby New Year

Before you ask the doctor for that round of antibiotics to treat that cold you picked up over the holidays, blow your nose and read this book:

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Diversity is the answer to everything, it seems. World peace, weeds, robust ecosystems, soil fertility, pathogens. I think I’ve told you that I’m no fan of antibacterial soap. I would politely thank my mother-in-law for the bottle of whatever antibacterial, Bath-and-Body-Works, super-synthetic, overfragranced soap she would give me at Christmas, but then refill it with run-of-the-mill, this-barely-works-for-beans liquid soap as soon as the original contents ran out. Diversity is our friend. And that goes for the thousands (no joke) of bacteria varieties colonizing our homes and bodies.

(Parenthetical note about handwashing:

Hand washing prevents the spread of pathogens and saves many lives a year, but it doesn’t do so by sterilizing your hands. Instead, hand washing appears to remove microbes that have newly arrived, but not yet established on the hands. For example, when scientists experimentally put nonpathogenic E. coli on people’s hands, washing with soap and water removed much of the E. coli. It didn’t matter if the water was cold or hot. It didn’t matter for how long people washed (so long as it was at least twenty seconds). Also, ordinary bar soap was more effective than antimicrobial soap at getting rid of the E. coli. (p.250)

Yay, bar soap! I love bar soap!)

Twenty seconds of soap and water. [Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash  ]

Twenty seconds of soap and water. [Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash ]

According to Rob Dunn, doctors in the late ‘50s were struggling with certain Staphylococcus aureus type 80/81 infections of newborns in their hospitals. They did various experiments that wouldn’t meet current standards of medical ethics and came to the realization that, if newborn babies’ bodies were first colonized by beneficial bacteria, 80/81 couldn’t get enough of a toehold to infect anyone. Bacterial diversity provided protection against a particular pathogen. Invasive species have a hard time taking over a field full of lots of different plants, grazed by different herbivores. But an empty field? Or one planted with only one crop? Easy pickings.

When we pump that antibacterial soap and squirt that antibacterial cleanser, we might get rid of certain harmful bacteria, but we’re also wiping out the good guys. Then, on our newly clean surface (i.e., our empty field), when something like E. coli wanders over, it finds lots of room to spread out and set up shop. The result? We get sick.

Same thing goes for when we kill our gut bacteria willy-nilly. Hence everyone downing the latest, trendy probiotic foods to try to pump up diversity. And the evil bacteria we were targeting in the first place only mutate, share the trait, and come roaring back stronger.

What are the best ways to increase diversity in order to prevent the bad guys from taking over? Dunn offers some suggestions.

  • Eating fermented foods made by hand is a good place to start. In fermented foods, like sourdough bread, they find that the flavor is influenced by the microbes present in the flour, on the baker’s hands, and in the bakery itself. Part of why a particular cook’s foods taste a particular way might be because of the particular microbes she and her kitchen pass along!

  • Leave the windows open, to bring more environmental goodies into the house.

  • Wash dishes by hand to prevent “the fungus that lives in dishwashers” everywhere(!).

  • Get a pet.

  • Plant a diverse garden.

  • Buy local foods, covered in local soil and microbes.

So garden your home and body, this new year, with plenty of diverse microbes, and keep the bad guys at bay!

A Whole Lotta Whole Foods Fix a Whole Lotta Problems

I made the kids blueberry pancakes this morning. And as I mixed in the frozen berries from the grocery store, I made the vow I always make when I have to use frozen fruit from the store: "This year, I'm going to buy a lot more fruit at the Market and freeze it." You heard me. For 2018, fruit isn't just for out-of-hand eating or for pies. This year I'm going to plan ahead for the smoothies and pancakes and muffins and cobblers of the off-season. Otherwise, what is the point of all the food preservation techniques available to modern cooks?

Memento berri  [Photo by  Brigitte Tohm  on  Unsplash

Memento berri  [Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash

The Market can't come soon enough. We finished off our last jar of raspberry jam from Growing Washington last week and have been tolerating inferior storebought. I'm down to one last can of Fishing Vessel St. Jude tuna. I hear rumors that the first Washington asparagus is being harvested. Is it May 17th yet?

And then there's the latest book I read, The Other Side of Impossible, which is really a collection of true stories about people with medical conditions who (mostly) managed to get better. Sit up and pay attention if you have, or know anyone who has, life-threatening food allergies, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, MS, ADHD, or asthma.

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I'll save you some time: one of the common denominators of the "cures" experienced in the book is a diet of whole foods, not always vegetarian, and often an avoidance of gluten and dairy. I'll tell you right off the bat that it would require a life-threatening condition to get me off gluten and dairy because I love them. Love love love. As does my husband. When I looked up from the book and said, "It's possible that your eczema is related to gluten-intolerance -- think of your cousin who has Celiac's," he answered, "I'd rather itch."

I did appreciate that this book was the first I'd read that actually explained why gluten might be a bad-guy in your gut, since avoiding gluten just because it's fashionable to do so is not a compelling reason for me.

Gluten is the one kind of protein our body can't fully digest, Dr. Fasano [visiting professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School] says...We don't have the enzymes to be able to break gluten down all the way. Its tight bonds are what we love about it -- they give bread its elasticity.  But the protein's recalcitrance seems to be the reason it can cause problems. Its distinctive chunkiness seems to be read by our bodies as harmful bacteria: Our immune system's response to gluten, including the release of zonulin [a protein that increases permeability of the intestine wall], is the same as its response to a suspected pathogen -- any microorganism that makes us sick. Our body treats gluten like an adversary that needs to be attacked and flushed out.

In other words, too much gluten, and our bodies might mount an immune response, including inflammation, which, when experienced chronically, leads to all sorts of health issues. Dr. Fasano's recommendation? Diversify your diet. 

I can get behind that. All the healthy and helpful bacteria in our guts needs food, and their favorite meal is dietary fiber, such as is found in whole fruits and vegetables. The more our healthy and helpful gut flora flourish, the less space there is for the unhelpful and unhealthy bacteria to find purchase. More good guys automatically means fewer bad guys. It's all about squatters' rights. If you are going to have billions of bacteria squatting in your digestive system (and you are -- it's how we've evolved to operate), at least encourage the nice squatters who take decent care of the property and even make improvements.

What happens if the bad bacteria take over? "An unbalanced bacteria population, or dysbiosis, is associated with a variety of diseases including autism, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, allergies, asthma, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and rheumatoid arthritis." Bold claims, and correlation isn't the same as causation. But it is true that too much bad bacteria leads to ye olde immune response and inflammation. And too much inflammation is certainly associated with all those conditions.

It wasn't just good food that effected unexpected cures in the book. Some also went in for admittedly kooky-sounding treatments like energy "wands" and such, which sounded less kooky once the author explored acupressure points. All in all, seeking out miracle cures requires a whole lotta time and money, options not open to all. But we lucky ones with access to good, whole food can at least start there. And our Bellevue Farmers Market believes "everyone should have access to fresh, healthy, nutritious food," and that includes those of us who qualify for EBT/SNAP benefits and seniors eligible for the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP). Better living through better eating!

Harping on Your Gut

My oldest recently had to do two successive rounds of antibiotics. Now, given the choice between letting an infection run rampant or downing the antibiotics, there was no contest, but I still wrung my hands over the thought of her gut flora being decimated. Especially since she just graduated high school and spends most of her time and money eating out with friends, where I suspect she isn't eating fruits and vegetables.

She isn't the only one. I've been hearing several gut complaints lately, and if I had a nickel for every time I recommended this book, I think I'd be a dollar-aire by now:

 

Read me!

Read me!

If you've had to do antibiotics, if you suffer from constipation, unruly gut--heck--even constipation, read this book. It might even help with depression, for Pete's sake. Our gut is a big, complicated, symbiotic organ that impacts just about everything, and it deserves better treatment from us.

As this Stanford Medicine blog post recounts, our gut and the flora it hosts impact our weight, brain, immune system, and overall health. And the best way to keep everything A-Okay is to provide all the little buggers with the best food possible: the fiber from a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Too much of any one type of fiber favors microbial strains that can digest it at the expense of the majority that can’t. The result would be reduced microbial diversity, the opposite of what’s desirable. Instead, eat lots of different fruits and vegetables. (Cooking them’s fine. We’ve been doing that for hundreds of thousands of years).

Do probiotics help? According to the book they don't do much to rebuild gut flora, since they largely pass through us. But they do provide spackle between intestinal wall cells, preventing leakage from the gut. As the Sonnenbergs put it, the intestinal wall is "a protective barrier that keeps microbes from getting out of the gut and into the bloodstream, where they emphatically don’t belong." Strong spackle is good.

Therefore, at the Market last week, I checked out one of the vendors of kombucha, otherwise known as fermented tea, otherwise known as a good source of probiotics, as are all fermented foods.

 

ShenZen Tea sells both loose tea leaves in many flavors and several varieties of kombucha.

 

Since I drink tea hot and iced year-round, I'll have to check out some of the many varieties on offer, but this time we got a 16-oz of the "most popular" kombucha, which I think was a lemongrass flavor...?

In any case, it was refreshing and delicious, like mildly carbonated, hardly-sweet-at-all soda. My other daughter and I would gladly have drunk the entire thing on our own, but since it was supposedly for the gut-depleted one, we refrained. But if you're walking through the Market on a warm day and don't want a big sugar rush from the other refreshments, give kombucha a try! Your gut will thank you.

Gutting It Out

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Have the New Year's Resolutions survived the one-week mark? I'm happy to report that our good-gut-promoting food resolutions are hanging in there. To review, in order to keep the zillions of healthful bacteria in our guts fed and happy, we proposed:

  1. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  2. Ditch the refined flours.
  3. Reduce the meat a little.

To up the fruit intake and the probiotics in the mornings, I've added a homemade smoothie. I see why the things are so danged expensive, but I'm betting the ingredients I put in at home are better than the ones in the mass-marketed products, and because the portion size at home is reasonable, the kids aren't getting super-sized sugar.

Bit o' Berry Smoothie

About 1 cup of whole-milk plain yogurt

a few sections of mandarin orange

about 1 cup of frozen mixed berries

a big slosh of vanilla-flavored almond milk (you could use any kind of milk you like, but if it's unsweetened, add a little vanilla and honey/sugar yourself)

a tbsp of ground flaxseed

Whirl in ye olde blender and serve.

We've been eating a lot of spinach salad in the evenings: spinach, pomegranate seeds, toasted almonds, feta cheese, and a balsamic vinaigrette. But whenever we run out of salad fixings, we switch to a mini crudite platter of carrots, celery, and cucumber, which I served last night, accompanied by my favorite Deborah-Madison-dip that conveniently features probiotics.

Yogurt Sauce with Cayenne and Dill

1/2 cup whole milk yogurt

1/4 cup cultured sour cream

1 small garlic clove, pulverized with 1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp dill

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

Mix and refrigerate.

Since we always kick off the New Year with "Sugar-Free January," cutting extra sugar and most of the refined flours that made up all those Christmas desserts was a freebie. I think we go through as many bags of white flour and sugar in November and December as we do in the other ten months combined...

The meat resolution still poses a challenge, and I do wish the gut book had mentioned how much meat is too much. We eat about 1/5 of a lb each, 5-6 days a week, which I'd be inclined to say wasn't excessive, but what do I know? Stay tuned.

Go With Your Gut in 2017

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It turns out that we were on to something with expressions like "my gut tells me" and "I just have a gut feeling." As I first read in

last year, our bowels have a mysterious emotional connection to our brain, producing 95% of our seratonin, for example. And there's a reason nervousness gives us butterflies in our gut, not our brain. We ignore our guts at our peril, in terms of our emotional health.

Well, this December I picked up another book on the under-appreciated gut:

The cover makes it sound like a diet book, but, really, the authors, who hail from Stanford, give a great laymen's background on our gut and its bacterial population. Yes, they give some tips for improving gut health, which I'll get to, but first they just have plenty of fascinating information to share.

First off, whether or not you have the gift of hospitality, your body hosts bazillions of bacteria. On your hand alone "there are more microbes present...than there are people in the world." For germaphobes, this news might freak them out, but the Sonnenburgs want us to know that the bacteria our bodies have learned and evolved to live with are largely helpful. It's only when the helpful little guys are absent or decimated that the few bacterial villains gain a toehold and make us very, very sick. Our "gut flora" help us extract nutrients from food, bolster our immune system, and communicate with our brains. They can even determine if we tend toward leanness or obesity! When the populations of various bacteria are underfed, they might go extinct (freeing up more gut space for harmful bacteria) or start eating the mucus lining of our large intestine, destroying the protective layer between everything coming into the body and the bloodstream.

In our modern Western world,

Four factors have greatly changed gut flora in individuals in our population over the past few decades. They are: 1) increasing consumption of industrialized, processed foods, 2) widespread use of antibiotics, 3) the alarming rise in Caesarean deliveries, now accounting for one in every three births, and 4) the decline in breast-feeding.

What happens when our gut flora get out of wack?

Dysbiosis, or microbial imbalance, is observed in people with a variety of health problems such as Crohn's disease, metabolic syndrome, colon cancer, and even autism. In fact, it is getting more and more difficult to find a health condition that has not been linked to aberrations within the microbiota.

The authors are careful to emphasize that correlation is not causation, and they go carefully through the data (mostly on mice studies at this point), but certainly promoting gut health wouldn't make any of those conditions worse and would probably yield related and unrelated benefits. There's absolutely nothing to be lost in promoting gut health.

Some circumstances we can't help, like being born by unexpected C-section, but the authors ensured that their C-section daughters received a good swabbing with mom's birth canal bacteria, since that first essential exposure populates the infant's clean system with tried-and-true good flora. Breast milk further provides some incredibly complex carbs too expensive to reproduce in the lab, feeding those good bacteria and ensuring that they flourish. If you missed both those boats with your kids, despair not, but do try to keep them off the antibiotics when possible, since "antibiotic use in children is associated with an increased risk for a number of ailments such as asthma, eczema, and even obesity." Similarly, antibiotic used in adults usually wipes out plenty of the healthy bacteria along with the culprits, leaving us vulnerable to the bad guys taking hold and creating super bugs. (Wonder why old folks are so vulnerable to food-borne bacterial infection? Aging decreases the variety of our gut flora!)

The good news is, we can impact and maintain the health of our gut flora with a few key decisions. With these in mind, I came up with my 2017 New Year's Resolutions.

  1. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables--for the fiber! No matter what health/wellness book you read, there's no escaping this one. All that natural fiber keeps our flora hard at work, keeps them from eating the mucosal intestinal lining, and reduces inflammation.
  2. Ditch the refined flours. In order for our flora to have something to eat and break down and work on, they need food that doesn't turn instantly to sugar before it even gets to them. Go whole grain. Watch for "glycemic load."
  3. Reduce the meat a little.  I'm looking at you, Paleo dieters. This one will be tough with us because I have a teenage son who needs the protein and is constantly starving.

Several studies show that a meat-centered diet impacts the microbiota in a way that is detrimental to health. Within four weeks, dieters on a high-protein, reduced carbohydrate regimen had a dramatic increase in both the amount of [short chain fatty acids] and fiber-derived antioxidants they produced and a buildup of hazardous metabolites in their colons. This type of environment would negatively affect long-term colon health by increasing the risk for inflammatory diseases and colon cancer.

Finally, you may wonder if consuming probiotics helps. All the marketing gimmicks aside, consumption of live-culture yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, etc. increases the number of transient bacteria moving through your system, and "there is evidence that the presence of probiotic bacteria passing through us reinvigorates our body's defenses against invading pathogens." Not bad, for tourists. They also promote the secretion of that glorious, protective intestinal mucus. So let's say, as a last Resolution:

4. Add some probiotics to the diet.

I'm headed to the store to pick up some yogurt and maybe some kefir to experiment with. I'll keep you posted.