Hippocrates alluded to the gut as the source of all our ills, and Katherine Belisle, a health practitioner in Whitehorse, couldn't agree more. Working in the relatively new field of functional nutrition she has been doggedly working to introduce the benefits of eating fermented foods to an increasingly willing audience. Functional nutrition differs from a more traditional dietetic approach of looking just at the components of food in that it studies how the gut interacts with food.
"What we are seeing today are two realities,” she tells me, referring to twin devils that have led to the current preponderance of digestive woes in our culture. “We have a society where people are under a considerable amount of stress, and a society in which people are exposed to considerable amounts of toxins and eating nutrient deficient diets. Together these impact the gut in a negative way.”
The first isn't news – newspaper health columns are full of the latest research on stress and how it impacts the body. To recap the basics, when we are under stress the nervous system shuts down blood flow to the digestive system in favour of the heart and brain. This is ancient brain stuff at work – a full stomach makes it difficult to fight or flee. Distraction has a similar impact on the digestive organs, but instead of shutting them down it doesn't let them wake up. Our meals are about more than taste – smell, sight, and ritual all serve roles in preparing our alimentary tract to receive food; when the mouth waters it is getting full of enzymes that begin digestion in the mouth. The mechanical act of chewing also often gets passed over when we aren't focused on our food – I know I am guilty of scarfing down a meal without even registering that it went down, especially when thinking about my to-do list and reading the news at the same time.
This all results in inadequately digested food arriving in the small intestine, the home of our beloved gut flora: trillions of microorganisms that help us get the most from our food. It's also in trouble. Belisle continues: “An excess of exposure to antibiotics, chlorine in our water, overly processed and nutrient-poor food and living in super-clean environments leads to a decrease in the biodiversity in our gut and an imbalance in the 'good' versus the 'bad' bacteria.”
She explains that the undigested food particles nourish the bad guys, whose metabolic products are toxic to our bodies. All this leads to inflammation of the small intestine and a syndrome known as 'leaky gut,’ where material passes directly through the wall of the small intestine into the bloodstream instead of being filtered through the villi, finger-like projections that line the gut.
Belisle now moves over to the liver. “The liver is so important to the whole body. When it malfunctions we can see fatigue, hormone imbalances and other chronic symptoms. The buildup of toxins in the blood from stress combined with those now coming from a compromised small intestine overwhelm the liver with its role of detoxification and it can't perform its other jobs.” Sounds like bad news. In addition, those nutrient-poor diets we were talking about fail to provide the liver with what it needs to function well, and the material now floating about in the bloodstream can send the immune system into overdrive trying to respond. No wonder a whole host of symptoms can be traced back to digestion.
Luckily, there is hope! Enter sauerkraut. “Fermented foods are a way of adding beneficial bacteria to the gut that is accessible, affordable and provides a much greater diversity of microorganisms than over-the-counter probiotics,” says Belisle. “They also include prebiotics, partially digested particles that feed the good bacteria already present in the small intestine, and are rich in nutrients the body needs.”
While she cautions that severe medical conditions might make it risky to experiment, most people can very safely start to introduce healthy flora into their gut through sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and kefir.
If any of these sound interesting (and they are all delicious), try out the Fermented Foodies Club. “Fermentation is getting much more popular,” Belisle tells me, “at my first farmers' market workshop three years ago I got a few people stopping by to say 'ew.' This year I had people the entire time; I didn't get a break!” She feels the time is ripe for a regular social where people can share their knowledge, questions, and cultures – metaphorically and literally, and has begun facilitating events on the last Friday of every month at Farmer Robert's tea room from 5 - 6 pm. Check our her website for more information at www.katherinebelisle.com, and why not try a couple simple tips: chew your food, and think about how delicious it is. I really can't think of an easier pill to swallow.
Common perception: I am intolerant to [insert food here].
Alternative: It's not the food.
People with digestive health issues often turn to elimination diets, cutting out different food items, and find short-term results then symptoms return. Belisle explains that removing whatever is the main irritant can lead to temporary improvement, but that another food item will take its place if the root cause of inflammation is not addressed. She warns that elimination diets in their extreme can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
Common perception: Once I recolonise my gut I'll be fine.
Alternative: Our gut flora is largely transient, so get used to eating ferments!
Belisle explains that contrary to the idea that eating ferments or taking probiotics can kickstart a healthy flora that would then proliferate and stabilise on its own, we finish establishing our resident flora by the time we are two. “After that everything is transient and seldom lasts more than two weeks,” she tells me. The response? Make ferments part of your diet, not a once-in-awhile medical intervention.
Getting started with fermenting
- Use around 2% salt by weight of shredded or chopped vegetables, or 2 Tbs per 5 kg.
- Start simple, ie: cabbage and salt, then start to mix veggies and add spices.
- Keep veggies submerged beneath the brine and covering the crock or jar. Ideally air can get out, but not in.
- Ferment at room temperature to ensure activity, then store cool once you like the taste.