We have a pretty fixed view of what makes up the human body – cells, blood, tissues, bone and so on. But, did you know that inside your gut you carry around a whopping 2kg of microbes, which consists of over 1,000 different species of bacteria that outnumber our cells 10 to 1? Most of us are aware that these bacteria play a hugely important role in the digestion process (breaking down food, absorbing nutrients etc), but science is increasingly viewing the microbiome as a new, unexplored and possibly intelligent organ in its own right. Scientists are now asking: what’s the connection between the health of our microbiome and our overall health? What role does the microbiome play in mood, depression, diabetes, autism, autoimmune disease, inflammation, food allergies and cancer?
Though it’s an emerging field, scientists seem to agree that a diversity of gut bacteria is good for our health and that (not surprisingly) what we put in to our bodies has a huge impact on our microbiome. Diets high in processed foods are thought to have a huge impact on our gut micro-organism levels. Dietary sugar and fat encourages bad bacteria and reduces the level of the virtuous ones. Excessive antibiotic use is also a concern – a study co-led by researchers at the Universitat de València found that antibiotic treatment causes significant and sometimes irreversible changes in our gut community. Specifically, the study found that the gut microbiome shows less capacity to absorb iron and digest certain foods during antibiotic treatment.
There are major health claims being made about fermented foods in relation to gut heath, some of which we should probably treat with caution. They are purported to improve intestinal tract health, enhance the immune system, improve absorption of nutrients and reduce the risk of certain cancers. Scientists agree that the bacteria in fermented foods help to pre-digest food components, making it easier for your gut to handle and for nutrients to be absorbed.
When I first started fermenting food at home, I was just as interested in how they could help me to ‘store’ food as I was in their potential health benefits. Kimchi and sauerkraut for example are centuries-old methods (in Korea and Germany respectively) of preserving cabbage. From a culinary perspective I think kimchi is the more exciting of the two. In Korea there are thought to be literally thousands of kimchi recipes and it was traditionally stored in clay pots buried underground to keep them cool and slow the fermentation process. My version below adds carrot, beetroot and shallots as well as the traditional garlic, ginger and chilli-pepper to give it a kick. I have got in to the habit of eating a small bowl of kimchi each evening before dinner (or sometimes as a side dish). Potential gut health benefits aside, it’s a delicious way to deal with a glut of homegrown veg.
Read more about the microbiome and health here: http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/microbiome/disease