There is a really good chance that if you are reading this blog, you’ve already heard of naturally fermented foods. Especially since at this point, most of my traffic is likely to either come from real food and sustainable lifestyle blogs I follow, people on Pinterest interested in the same subjects, or my sweetly supportive boyfriend. But, like any good blogger I must of course put my own words on the subject out there. Except that there are so many words to be said, and I’m not quite sure yet what I fully think.
So my ginger bug that I started because of Fermentation for Beginners seems to have caused quite a stir on me. While my bug started its first few bubbles, I dived into the internet and strangled it for all the info it was worth, blew up a new board on Pinterest (man that thing seems to be growing way faster than all my other boards) and checked out Sandor Katz‘s books from the library (The Art of Fermentation and Wild Fermentation).
Only I’ve been so busy stalking the fantastically fabulous Wild Fermentation Facebook group and various blogs around the world that I haven’t even had time to catch up with myself, settle down, and read my library books. I was going to write about a ginger bug, but now I’m starting Rejuvelac, sauerkraut, and apple cider vinegar as well. Also, I’ve been reading so much online that when I went back to browse Fermentation for Beginners, I noticed that there are some things said that (in theory) I’m not sure I agree with or I seem to be telling myself that I know better methods. I still think it’s a good book, but I’d say it probably shouldn’t be the only fermentation book in my library. I’m really looking forward to cracking open these library books, for sure.
What got me in so deep is that this new culinary adventure may also have the medicinal benefit of probiotics, the friendly bacteria that can actually do your body some good. So far I know that some pros are claims of improved digestion, especially for people who suffer from chronic conditions related to digestion and intestinal disturbances, or inflammation in general including joint pain. There may be a possible weight loss benefit for some people. There is the added benefit that beneficial bacteria and microbes may help the immune system, decreasing our reliance on antibiotics and allowing our immunities to develop naturally (thus not providing bacteria the chance to mutate a resistance to antibiotics). There also seems to be benefit to some psychological conditions, including anxiety, depression, and autism or Asperger’s syndrome.
Now, my son has frequent stomach upset and we both have anxiety issues. In addition, I have chronic joint pain that doctors have seen inflammation with but have not been able to pinpoint the cause of (and I got tired of being a pincushion so gave up trying to figure it out). So, this certainly gets my interest up.
I spoke with my son’s doctor and she said that while it may help his stomach issues, the research supporting probiotics decreasing anxiety or depression is weak (though it does exist). She mentioned that she has seen several clients through the years experiment with different diets to help disorders such as anxiety, autism, Asperger’s, and ADHD. She said there was only a minimal impact on symptoms and therapeutic intervention was still required. (Secretly I thought that even a small benefit is a cool side effect when you’re only doing this to make neat new sodas and tangy foods.)
Yet, some not so shady sources seem to contradict what she has seen in her personal practice. It does seem that Harvard is getting behind some of the claims. So that seems reputable. I also noticed that the results of one study were labeled “inconclusive” because parents of kids with autism were refusing to take their kids off of probiotics once the symptoms alleviated to see if the children reverted to pre-probiotic behaviors. I don’t blame them. If I had a kid with autism and they improved on a treatment, I think I’d be more likely to flip my doctor the bird than take my kid off those wonderful meds.
I know there are plenty of people who feel better after making their own probiotic drinks and foods, but that could be the result of removing harmful additives, especially if they were soda junkies before. It could also be a placebo effect, but I don’t care. I love the placebo effect, it’s like medicine without harmful side effects. That’s actually pretty neat. Unless you are a pessimist, then you get the nocebo effect, and you only experience the negative side effects. No, I’m serious, that’s a thing. Google is right over there, go look it up if you don’t believe me.
More convincing are the reports from people who found themselves in a lot of intestinal discomfort following a large amount of antibiotics, and then they experienced relief with probiotic foods. However, in such a case it appears that you may need a doctor’s help recommending the right probiotic medicine to use. I’ve run across several articles that discuss how one strain of prescription probiotics may benefit a certain disorder or reaction to antibiotics, but other strains are effective on other disorders. This may explain why some studies have not shown support while others have; perhaps the incorrect strain was used in the testing. In home fermentation, perhaps one food might not help while another will.
In looking at both research and stories of personal experiences, it seems like they vague results are likely because there are a number of causes of any of these disorders. There’s a lot of discussion about mice and probiotics, but we aren’t mice and our lives, environment, and diets are more complicated than the average laboratory mice. We have more chance of running into other underlying causes of certain behaviors, disorders, or diseases.
I know that boosts to digestion are said to help as much as any medicine might, as it allows our bodies to absorb more nutrients and those nutrients can help to strengthen systems that flush out more toxins. We can increase overall energy and possibly decrease emotional stress, especially if the overall diet improves along with digestion.
Actually, for a long time I’ve been a believer that efficient digestion and assimilation of nutrients can help a lot of disorders. If you aren’t absorbing and utilizing your nutrients correctly, your body will lack what it needs to function. A boost in digestion means you are absorbing more nutrition from the same amount of food (and your body is using less resources and energy to get the added nutrition).
A lot of minerals and vitamins may impact metabolism, conversion of nutrients into cellular tissue, and even production of neurochemicals such as serotonin and melatonin. One nutrient or chemical out of whack can produce a chain reaction. If we aren’t producing melatonin correctly, we aren’t sleeping well, and therefore everything from memory and learning, our ability to control our emotions and react to stress, to our ability for our body to heal and repair itself during deep sleep will be damaged.
Also, if we are off in one nutrient, we are likely to be off in more than one, causing multiple systems to be stressed out from multiple causes. Digestion isn’t the only factor by far. There are also genetics, lifestyle habits, and environmental factors that could be affecting our health and well being (as well as other underlying issues).
It could be that by improving digestion we provide a little more benefit and support to these systems, and in some cases that could help. I can see how obesity could be potentially helped in some cases. If you are driven to overeat due to the body trying to make up for a lack of nutrients then improving digestion might help you. If that isn’t the cause of your obesity, it might not.
If your body is sending you stress signals (resulting in anxiety) to indicate the presence of a toxin, perhaps clearing your gut of yeast or detrimental microbes and replacing them with healthy probiotics will decrease your symptoms. If that’s not what is causing your anxiety, it might not.
What works for one person is not guaranteed to work for another because a wide range of diseases and disorders display the same symptoms. Headaches for example. They can be caused by insomnia, hormonal fluctuations, dehydration, aftermath or side effects of drugs (recreational or prescribed), eyestrain, stress, and so on. If your headache is due to a lack of sleep, a glass of water won’t help.
I’ve also seen information that says how the probiotics are delivered matters; they need something durable to survive through the gut. Critics of probiotics say that the bacteria will die in the stomach acids, while fans say that even then the probiotic foods will make the intestine set up a more beneficial environment (the probiotic as prebiotic argument). True, if a probiotic food has bacteria that die in the stomach acids it may still set up prebiotic conditions in the intestines to allow favorable bacteria to grow, but it also seems of benefit to try to make sure that some of the beneficial bacteria actually get there to colonize the favorable conditions.
What I’ve read so far has me thinking that complex carbohydrates may be better than the simple sugars in soda making (blackstrap molasses instead of refined sugar), and maybe yogurt or fermented cream cheese spreads on bread might benefit from the digestion-slowing gluten and complex carbs in whole grains. In other words, if a food containing probiotics is more difficult to break down in the stomach, it might be able to deliver the actual probiotic strains to the gut instead of simply making the gut less friendly to evil little microbes and malicious yeast.
There may also be a problem with people’s personal stories regarding these benefits. Most of the time when I’ve read personal accounts, the people are fed up with doctors (like with me and my joints) and they make broad, sweeping changes to their lifestyle. In these cases, it’s hard to say for sure if it’s all of the changes working together, if it’s only one or two of them, or if it’s one thing buried in the giant list of changes. For instance, if you cut several foods out of your diet at the same time, what if it was only one or two foods that were the cause of your particular issue and the other changes were unnecessary restrictions? I can also see how such stories aren’t going to persuade the medical field too quickly (they’re real strict about changing only one variable at a time and rigorously sticking to the scientific method).
In the meantime, whether or not they fulfill all of their health claims, these fermentation methods do provide us with homemade soft drinks (and other foods) that are healthier than commercial counterparts. We can decrease sugar, use organic ingredients, supplement with medicinal or nutritious ingredients, and experiment with interesting flavors. We can also cut out preservatives, artificial flavoring, and artificial color. This all sounds good to me.
Now I think I’m done thinking about it. I want to go read and just play in the kitchen rather than watch people get into snark fests in the comment sections on newspapers for towns I don’t even live in.
How is my ginger bug doing anyway, you ask? Well, I’m not sure. It seems pretty sluggish, but it is making some bubbles. I did put it into some apple juice, but the result was too sweet and it took way too long to build up pressure. The result wasn’t very fizzy either. I think this week I’ll start changing my feeding method and see how that works out. I was using a method where I had a jar filled with water that I put a tablespoon each of sugar and ginger each day (seemed easier than what was in my book and worked for someone else) but this means the ginger bug goes from being too thin to being too syrupy. I’m going to go back to measuring out my water as well and see if I get better results.
So far my first Rejuvelac was just awful (I think I got some bad microbes in it), but my apple cider vinegar seems to be coming along just fine. That’s the one in the middle of my first pic, my apples are starting to sink so it will be ready to strain soon. I made some sauerkraut too, it’s only a few days old but very active. I’ll post about each of these soon :).
Now I’m going to share some interesting pages I found, mostly because if I’ve missed something fascinating, I’d love for you to cue me in. In the meantime, I’m going to pull away from the internet and get to reading these library books while my new kitchen pets bubble away.
Food Renegade seems pretty happy and enthusiastic with probiotics.
Harvard also seems optimistic about probiotics, especially when it concerns intestinal health. It would be hard for someone to criticize them as a source (unless they’re an ultra snob).
WebMD has some suggestions on which probiotic strains may help certain particular intestinal difficulties.
This CNN article also describes how different strains may alleviate different disorders.
Here’s another pro-probiotic news article.
This How Stuff Works article discusses things of interest for a balanced viewpoint and a nice list of links at the end.
There’s been some evidence that if you are genetically prone to arthritis, gut bacteria may be involved in rheumatoid arthritis.
Actually, I think this study seems to be pretty soundly demonstrating that efficient digestion may decrease obesity (if poor digestion is a factor in the cause in the first place). At least, it may help your obese pet mice.
Some more messing with mice guts demonstrated a rise or decrease in anxiety symptoms in mice.
Here’s a brief summary of several studies, actually I wish the author went into more detail but it is an easy read.
This article tells of how probiotics may decrease symptoms of autism or Asperger’s in some people, as well as discusses more psychological benefits to probiotics.
This page on an autism site naturally discusses autism, but also other disorders that probiotics might help (and in a balanced and honest way).
I’ve heard that some kids with autism are put on the GFCF diet, but what I think is seriously interesting is that this page mentions that there are differences between what intestinal disturbances children with autism display in one decade versus another. This seems to imply that we still have not uncovered the full range of environmental causes that may be contributing to the disorder (which I already knew but there’s a big pointing “what happened in this timeframe?” finger). I also like how that page is honest about the fact that treating the intestines does not help all children with autism. But if you or a loved one have autism, this seems like a great place to find help and support.
The Wild Fermentation group on Facebook has a great page about fermentation myths and facts. That’s a good group full of some pretty levelheaded people. Also some pretty and levelheaded people.