Giulia Enders won the 2012 science slam in Berlin for her presentation of some of the material in Gut. It is a revealing read and the drawings by her sister Jill make the science more palatable. (pun intended) The great thing about this book is that it is comprehensive without being overwhelming. It gives a good overview of gut activity and its importance as a system that interacts deeply with our other systems, but also invites further study on some of the chapter content which moves systematically from the oesophagus and digestive organs to allergies and intolerances, the role of gut flora, and how to keep gut flora balanced. A particularly interesting chapter is ‘The Bad Guys” followed by a chapter on the good gut flora we want to encourage. Another chapter that fascinates is “the Brain and the Gut”
Our gut talks to our brain. Probably in many ways, one way Enders mentions is by sending impulses via nerve fibres. When your gut is struggling, your brain does not function as well as it should. Depression and memory loss have been measured in controlled experiments to be affected by gut health. A healthy microbiome – a diverse happy mix of gut bacteria – is essential for good physiological health. It’s not just mood and memory that are affected by insufficient gut bacteria. As with the FODMAP reactions, severe arthritis, psoriasis eye problems, eczema, problems arising from an aggravated immune system, as well as clinical depression can occur. When gut bacteria from people with depression was administered to rats they all developed depressive behaviours that they had not displayed before. We don’t need to harm rats to know this, everyone instinctively knows there is a huge link between gut and brain function. It is just that decades of doctors insisting that food has nothing to do with your health has thrown people off the path.
Enders points to a hopeless situation where a woman was at death’s door with digestive problems, so as a final last ditch attempt they used some of her husband’s gut microbes essentially as a suppository and she was completely healed within weeks. It was because he had healthy gut microbiome and it worked to stabilise hers. If you are a vet or work with animals, you will know that this has been in use for decades. The sterile requirements for human medicine make research slow. It’s great to be clean, but as with the FDA when they told Nun and cheese maker Noella Marcellino (more on her next week) to stop using a wooden bucket and use a stainless steel one instead. They thought they were doing the right thing keeping everything sterile, but of course there needs to be a certain amount of good bacteria around to deal with the undesirable bacteria. Using a stainless steel bucket resulted in e-coli, eventually arguing her case, in 2014 Marcellino was allowed to go back to using the wooden bucket. We all know (I hope) that wood is an excellent self-cleaner and has its own natural oils for that. The same applies to your gut. You need exactly the right balance of good and bad bacteria to keep everything balanced.
Enders includes some wonderful entertaining drawings in her book “Gut” which illustrate the whole process of digestion from the thought, aroma and sight of food, to our responses days after eating. She makes biology fun, which I never thought possible, and she allows for the fact that there is a huge amount yet to be done in gut research. I read the 2017 revised edition, she first presented the material in 2012 which you can see on YouTube and published the book in 2014 it is academic with full references. Her final few pages are devoted to encouraging our ‘Clever Cravings for Fermented Foods’ Her description here is a great reminder to steer ourselves away from processed foods. We naturally know what is good for us, true, but foods that we would never want to eat or drink are disguised by the addition of things that our bodies recognise to make them palatable. The result is that we willingly eat and drink all sorts of things that are awful for our health. So fine is this process, that just the addition of citric acid can fool us. It is ‘something that several million years of evolution has not been able to prepare us for’ A glass of water loaded with sugar (as much as in a Coke) would be undrinkable and disgusting. Add a small amount of citric acid (representing the phosphoric acid in Coke) and suddenly you have a delicious drink. It is because our bodies are familiar with acid from fruit and in combination with other foods it gains our trust.
So yes we do know what’s good for us, but when combined or processed? No. We most certainly do not!
Throughout the book Enders explores the idea of fermented pre-digested foods as one way to encourage a balanced micro biome. In the final section she shows us how to use good bacteria to ferment vegetables. She recommends cabbage, carrots and gherkins that are organic and have no pesticides on them. Some foods that encourage good flora are asparagus, artichokes, onion, garlic, parsnip, potato salad, sauerkraut, yoghurt, leek, salsify, endives. Things from the sunflower family. Eat them regularly. Try it. See how you feel.
Next time Noella Marcellino and the wooden bucket.