Trust your gut — eating key to staying healthy

Some+of+the+author%27s+fermenting+vegetables.

Photo by Joe Casey Moreno

Some of the author’s fermenting vegetables.

By Joe Casey Moreno, Staff Writer

(The author of this article is not a doctor and you always should consult your health care provider before taking on any major changes in your diet.)

More than half of you…is not you. Besides human cells, our bodies are covered inside and out with a “microbiome” of “not you.” That would include trillions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, archaea and perhaps some pathogens for good measure. If there were a Times Square of these little “others” it would be located smack in the middle of you. Your guts, or your stomach, colon and intestines. And they do hold sway over you.

As we feed and shelter these microbes, they in turn feed and protect us. They are in constant communication with the brain, playing a major role in our mental and physical health. Everyone’s microbiome is unique. Of the trillions of gut bacteria, there are about 1,000 different species. While in the past we used terms such as “good” and “bad” bacteria, that doesn’t quite fit the bill. However science has honed in on certain combinations that are found in healthy people. It really is about balance, in favor of the, well “good” ones.

While age, environment, genes and medications affect your personal biome-mix of microbes, the one factor that is perhaps the most easily controlled and adjusted is what we put in our mouths. What we eat, they eat. If we have pizza craving microbes in the majority, (because of a pizza leaning diet), the thoughts in our heads reflect that– you know the voice: “Hey, how about some pizza tonight?” It becomes a closed communication loop cementing in what becomes, your habits. If you changed your diet to a healthier combination for your body, over time the relative numbers of beneficial microbes will change. Different messages are sent, different genes activated, different nutrients absorbed, different thoughts emerge. They not only influence what you eat, but behavior as well. Anxiety, depression, autism and a variety of other conditions may be  affected. This is admittedly simplified as every person’s body and needs are unique.

So what does your guts have in common with South Korea and Covid-19? This is the hypothesis that caught my attention as I was working to heal my gut for completely different reasons.

Though I’ve never been diagnosis by a doctor for say IBS, I know I have gut issues because I get a stomach ache after just about everything I eat. I also grew up with strict adherence to the Standard American Diet (SAD) of processed foods from the grocery store. Because of this I have become an armchair scientist, trying to figure how to heal my body as naturally as possible. Over the last decade, I have improved my diet and mental health greatly with a lot of hard work. Yet what I eat remains a difficult thing to change as these habits have had decades to groove their way into my neural net with a con man’s finesse. The fact that I still crave “junk” food, lets me know I still have some work to do to heal my gut microbiome balance. I want to find a way to increase those healthy happy bacteria that make me desire a salad, a work out and a meditation session instead of a slice of pizza, a beer and a nap. That research brought me to the magic of fermented foods.

According to Dr. David S. Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health: “Fermented foods are preserved using an age-old process that not only boosts the food’s shelf life and nutritional value, but can give your body a dose of healthy probiotics, which are live microorganisms crucial to healthy digestion.”

Perhaps the most famous fermented food is sauerkraut. Captain Cook famously kept 7,860 pounds of sauerkraut aboard the Endeavor during the age of global exploration via sailing vessels in the mid 1700s as part of the British Crown’s attempts to find a reliable method for preventing the abysmal scurvy that plagued the era. After three years of sailing, not a single death was attributed to scurvy. It staved off the vitamin deficiencies that normally accompanied long voyages on the open seas where fresh fruit was unable to last.

Fermented foods have been a staple of Asian culture for thousands of years. Fermented cabbage allowed them to survive the long winters between the fresh fruit seasons. Historical records show the food showing up in the worker’s bellies that built the Great Wall of China. It even road with the hordes of Genghis Kahn.

Kimchi, sauerkraut’s Korean cousin, has staved off vitamin deficiencies for thousands of years. This brought me to consider Covid-19 and South Korea. As of this writing, South Korea, with a population of just over 51 million people, has suffered 453 Covid-19 deaths having had 25,000 cases. As of late August 2020, according to Florida Atlantic University research: “The United States has suffered 47 times more cases and 79 times more deaths than South Korea.” Those numbers are staggering as the U.S. deaths continue to add up, currently to 225,000. We’re currently losing what’s equivalent to three commercial airplanes of people, every single day.

“To be sure, South Korea instituted effective containment and mitigation strategies, which they maintained in place until new cases and deaths were practically nonexistent,” according to the research. But, is this the whole picture? One researcher studied the link between fermented foods and Covid-19. Dr. Jean Bousquet, professor of pulmonary medicine at Montpellier University in France, studied the link between regional differences in diet and the spread and severity of the Covid-19 virus.

Countries that consumed a lot of fermented krauts were studied. It was found that nutrition may play a role in the immune defense against Covid-19. According to Bousquet’s study: “Foods with potent antioxidants or anti-ACE activity, like uncooked or fermented cabbage, are largely consumed in low death-rate European countries, Korea and Taiwan, and might be considered in the low prevalence of deaths.”

ACE2, or the angiotensis-converting enzyme 2, is a protein found around the body that is used as an entry point for Covid-19. Covid’s spiky exterior unlocks the ACE2 receptor and gains entry into the lungs. Dr. Bousquet’s study, published in the journal Clinical and Translational Allergy, found that fermented cabbage helps decrease the level of ACE2, the key to the virus replicating and finding entry into the body.

It should be stated that store bought kraut or kimchi is not equal to homemade. They are often heat treated for mass food production safety, killing off the helpful bacteria in the process.

After years of slowly evolving my diet, amidst a global pandemic, I was finally inspired to begin fermenting my own vegetables. I spent eight hours cleaning vessels, shredding vegetables and learning the process. It took longer than I imagined but now I have seven beautiful jars of fermented vegetables bubbling up on my kitchen counter. I experimented on a variety of thrown together recipes utilizing red and green cabbage, carrots, red, yellow and white onions, garlic, leeks, turmeric, asparagus, jalapeños, white and red radish, oranges, apples, lemons, beets, brussels sprouts, garlic, broccoli, kale, swiss chard and parsley.

A multitude of resources and instruction are available online for free. It should be noted, if you decide to take on this journey yourself, take it slow and listen to your body. My favorite educational resources have been the books and website of Donna Schwenk, culturedfoodlife.com. You need a jar, some veggies, water and some good salt. Though you can get fancy with starter cultures, minerals, prebiotics (food for the probiotics), airlock lids and springs (to keep your veggies air tight and submerged). It is a very safe and easy process to learn.

As I patiently wait the six days it takes to ferment (before being put in the fridge where it stays good for up to nine months), I feel as though there are about to be a few trillion new sheriffs in town. I wonder what’s going on in there right now. Those pizza loving microbes have no idea what’s about to hit ‘em.