Learning to Love Microbes

Fermentation. The ideas that this word brings to mind aren’t necessarily the most pleasant: rot, mysteriously bubbling liquids, putrid stench, sourness. When my professor told us that we would be fermenting our own vegetables and eating them, one of my classmates was absolutely horrified by the thought. To ferment is to decay, to decompose, to die – surely we shouldn’t eat spoiled food!

But fermented food isn’t spoiled: it’s pre-digested. Specifically, as Michael Pollan describes it in his book Cooked (now a four-part Netflix series), “To ferment food is to predigest it, in effect, breaking long chains of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates our bodies might not be able to make good use of into simpler, safer compounds that they can.” In the simplest terms, fermenting is cooking without heat.

Beer, wine, cheese, yogurt, sourdough bread, miso paste, fish sauce, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, tempeh, and even chocolate are all common examples of fermented foods. Nonetheless, describing them as what they are, fermented, still makes some people’s skin crawl. In the hyper-sterilized culture of westernized society, the process of encouraging bacterial growth sounds unsafe if not flat-out disgusting. We trust the manufactured versions of these products to be sanitized by industrial food producers to meet government standards to keep us safe. On the flipside, we no longer trust the process of fermentation itself, which has nothing to do with the most notorious foodborne threats of salmonella, listeria, and E coli. “Bacteria” have just been given a connotation of disease and death, such that we perceive them as menaces to be eradicated rather than recognizing their beneficial, natural role in our bodies.

Pollan writes beautifully and thoroughly about how detrimental processing and pasteurization have been to our microbiome, the communities of bacteria thriving in our bodies. Basically, we have deprived our bodily systems of a lot of beneficial microorganisms that humans have historically received from fermented and other foods. The combination of a) a lack of gut bacteria and b) the nutritional imbalance of our diets, heavy in fats and carbohydrates and low in fiber, has been linked to the rising prevalence of gastrointestinal disorders and possibly other autoimmune diseases.

Hold on – didn’t I write a post about the dangers of raw milk just two years ago? “Others still believe [raw milk] to be a good source of healthy bacteria – but, really, it is safer to look for probiotic dairy products, which have been pasteurized and then had beneficial bacteria added to them.” I look back on that post now and laugh at myself for having such blind faith in industrialization. The fact that manufacturers deliberately kill the naturally-occurring bacteria in our foods only to reinject some of them with live cultures for the sake of boasting a “probiotic” label is ridiculous. Thousands of microorganisms are lost in the process, so the effect on our bodies is markedly different. For instance, many sources will tell you that kefir made from live grains contains at least 35 strains of beneficial bacteria, yet store-bought versions boast a measly 12 active cultures.

Don’t get me wrong: pasteurization is extremely important to ensure the safety of mass-produced milk products. However, I highly recommend trying to incorporate unprocessed fermented foods to your diet, if you can find them. If you have access to organic produce, you can even try your hand at fermenting with recipes like this – it’s shockingly easy!

As Hokuma said in a recent post, let’s see food as a living and breathing ‘thing’ that interacts with our body.” I’d like to build on that: let’s see our insides as living things that interact with our food. It doesn’t sound sexy, but it’s the truth that gives us life.

Eva

Eat Right, Sleep Tight

Get ready for another post about two of life’s greatest pleasures: food and sleep! My last post focused on how mindful eating can (hopefully) prevent distressing dreams, but there are tons of other ways that the right foods and eating habits can help guarantee a restful slumber. For instance, while it’s fairly common knowledge that warm milk helps you sleep, what’s really interesting is the science behind its and other foods’ soothing effects.

Melatonin

sleep cherryThis is the hormone that causes us to fall and stay asleep, regulating the body’s circadian rhythm. Darkness, namely due to nightfall, triggers the pineal gland into secreting melatonin into the bloodstream to cause drowsiness. Blood melatonin content then stays high for roughly 12 hours before falling back to virtually undetectable daytime levels.

What to eat:

  • Tart cherries or cherry juice
  • Pineapple
  • Chickpeas, soy products, wild Atlantic salmon, and other foods rich in Vitamin B6, which boosts melatonin production
  • Calcium (warm milk!), which also helps produce melatonin

Serotonin

A neurotransmitter that is essential to the sleep cycle because it gets synthesized to create melatonin. Serotonin levels drop during REM, allowing the brain to be more active and dream, but low serotonin levels, often due to stress, can cause sleep disruption and disorders. Similarly, serotonin deficits have been linked to depression and increased aggression, which is why it the chemical is also considered to be a mood balancer.

*What to eat:

  • Dark chocolate, at least 70% cocoa
  • Walnuts
  • No caffeine, which is a serotonin depressant

*some research suggests that serotonin doesn’t cross the “blood-brain barrier,” meaning that consuming food containing the chemical won’t actually affect the brain. What seems to have more effect is tryptophan, explained below.

Tryptophan

You might have heard of this amino acid with reference to turkey on Thanksgiving. Tryptophan contributes to melatonin and serotonin production and is said to help people fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly. Vitamin B is especially helpful in converting it to serotonin.

cereal healthyWhat to eat:

  • Carbs (oats, whole grain breads, etc.), which cause a spike in blood sugar that triggers insulin and clears the bloodstream of tryptophan-inhibiting acids
  • Protein (turkey, bananas, peanut butter, milk, eggs, and cottage cheese)
  • Carb-protein combinations! Try low-sugar cereal with milk, cheese and crackers, or peanut butter sandwiches.

Magnesium

This vitamin reduces muscle tension, helping the body relax to fall asleep. Not to mention that it is known to combat high blood pressure and has been tentatively linked to reducing risk of developing diabetes, migraine frequency, and the intensity of PMS symptoms.

What to eat:

  • Leafy greens
  • Brazil nuts
  • Bananas

Bonus mythbuster: a glass of red wine before bed? Well, alcohol is a depressant and might make you feel tired in the short-term, but it can also cause disruptive internal gas and prevent you from achieving REM sleep. So, if that’s your sleep aid of choice, make it a small glass.

Hope you enjoyed this short guide to sleep-science jargon!

Sweet dreams,

Eva

Spice Up Your…Dreams?

As someone who almost never remembers the last night’s dreams, I have always been interested in what influences the kinds of dreams we have and how we recall them. One popular belief, which my parents swear by, is that spicy food induces strange, if not frightening, dreams. I’d taken it as common knowledge until I mentioned it to Ingrid and Hokuma while preparing a Mid-Week Delicacy involving peppers, jalapeños, and hot sauce (come back Wednesday for the recipe!) – they were surprised, having never heard of such a thing. I became curious about the legitimacy of the claim, so, as per usual, I took to Google for a bit of research.

Given that spicy food can have some pretty extreme impact on the digestive system, it seems logical to me that it could also have intense effects on the brain. After all, spicy food includes a wide array of side effects, such as making you hot, teary-eyed, and thirsty. Why wouldn’t there be some subconscious mental effects as well?

spicyWell, in 1992, the University of Tasmania tested how having Tabasco and/or mustard as part of dinner affected the sleeping patterns of healthy young men. The participants didn’t achieve deep sleep for as long as the control counterparts did, which the study implies is likely due to the changes in body temperature caused by capsaicin. Capsaicin, a compound found in most peppers, stimulates a nerve cell protein that typically only gets triggered by physical heat – hence, describing something spicy as being ‘hot.’ Since the compound raises your internal temperature, it becomes more difficult for your body to cool itself to a lower, sleeping temperature, so your brain is more active as it performs thermoregulation. As your body has more difficulty achieving REM sleep, the sleep stage in which dreams occur, your brain experiences REM pressure, which Dr. Gary Wenk of Ohio State University describes as “an onslaught of powerful dreaming that we denied ourselves earlier in the evening.” It’s the same reason that so-called fever dreams are known to be bizarre and sometimes scary.

dinner chicken indianHowever, a lot of other research has shown that dream patterns are less likely to be affected by what you eat than by when you eat. In other words, a late-night meal or snack will likely cause you to dream more intensely if you go to bed soon thereafter. This is because any food, no matter how mild, will stimulate the brain as it raises your body’s metabolism and temperature, prompting more mental activity. The larger, fattier, greasier, and/or spicier your last meal is, the more effort your body has to exert to break it down and lower your temperature, and the more likely you are to have wacky dreams or nightmares. To try to prevent these, just allow at least two hours to pass between dinnertime (or late-night-snack-time) and bedtime. Fiery food doesn’t seem to have as much of an effect as some people think, but, for good measure, you can wait an extra hour before going to bed and drink some cold milk if you had a lot of peppers or hot sauce.

Another key thing is not to worry that you might have a bad dream after a big or spicy meal – the anxiety might be what ends up negatively influencing your sleeping brain! Just enjoy what you eat.

Eva

Any Plastic Is Dangerous!

Photo by Evan Kafka
Photo by Evan Kafka

Big eyes, small hands and a cute little mouth. A baby around a dinner table can be a very adorable sight. Especially, when they want to be like the ‘adults’ and drink their juice from a cup as well. With so many sippy cups that come in different shapes and sizes, it’s easy to make your little growing bundle of joy feel like part of the entire family as they sit in their high chair, clutching a small cup with their little fingers, and feeling all grown up.

But while the adults are most likely eating out of porcelain plates, using their steel silverware and drinking from class cups, the child is sipping from a toxic ‘plastic’ cup. So we ask ourselves, why would the industry fool parents of precious little children into buying products filled with chemical toxins that infest the body of the young one?

Answer – 80,000 chemicals are currently on the market, and most of them have not been tested for safety. In fact, most chemicals that enter the market are considered ‘safe’ until proven otherwise. This is what happened with “bisphenol A (BPA),” a chemical that is commonly added to plastic baby bottles, “which mimics the hormone estrogen and has been linked to a long list of serious health problems.” (Mother Jones)

And after people heard about the dangers of BPA, the market was quick to find a solution and replace the chemical with something ‘safer’, when in fact, all that happened was the market replaced one dangerous chemical with another, which hasn’t been tested for safety and thus couldn’t be labeled as ‘dangerous’. One such replacement is, triton, which is in fact, one of the most estrogenic compounds in plastic bottles, such as KOR.

Graph from study by Dr. Bittner
Graph from study by Dr. Bittner

So, while the chemical and plastic industry continue to sell products filled with chemicals that haven’t been proven safe, and conduct their own studies that are biased, and designed to yield the results the industry wants, the consumer is left with the following options.

OPTIONS FOR CONSUMERS:
1. Get rid of ALL plastic materials at home, especially bottles, silverware, tupperware, and saran wrap.
2. Read this NPR article that reviewed a study by Dr. George D. Bittner, who found that “Most Plastic Products Release Estrogenic Chemicals: A Potential Health Problem That Can Be Solved.”
3. Ensure that your bottles and other plastic materials are stored away from UV lights and heat, as warm temperatures leads to leeching of the toxic chemicals into the juice and food inside the containers.
4. Don’t wash these products in the dishwasher and don’t boil anything in them. It’s also best not to put them in the microwave.
5. Do your own research and don’t believe everything the industry is selling you!

Take home message. Your safety and health is YOUR OWN RESPONSIBILITY. It is a lot of work, but thanks to caring bloggers and honest researches, this vital information can be found online. EPA and FDA do not regulate most produce, and only ban chemicals at the request of the agency.

Here is a video report by Democracy Now that spoke with the author of the article.

I will keep you posted with any updates! Good luck and eat safe!

With warmest wishes,
Hokuma