Good Bugs, Bad Bugs

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There has been a lot talk over the past few years about the role of bacteria in our general health, as it pertains to everything from obesity to immune disfunction and I have learned first hand the effect of an imbalanced microbiome- the term used to describe the community of bacteria that live in and on our bodies. For many years I was very sick with Rheumatoid Arthritis, an “incurable and degenerative” auto-immune disease that causes systemic inflammation and directly targets the the joints.

ChairLiftAfter years of being sick, I came to understand that bacteria played a key role in both my getting sick and my process to healing. I often get asked about “good” and “bad” bacteria and I think that’s indicative of one of the fundamental flaws in how we, as Americans, tend to look at health. It’s not about good versus evil, but about balance, something that often seems hard for us to acheive in our daily lives. Working enough that we’re challenged and successful, but not so much that we forget the importance of play. Monoculture is not good for us in any way, shape or form. Sure, kale is a great vegetable, but if you only eat kale, you’re gonna get sick. The same goes for our microbiome- the secret sauce is really to maintain a broad spectrum, a wide variety of bacteria. This helps us metabolism our foods, strengthen our immune systems and keeps us happy.

So how do we do it? Well, I think it’s important to look back to move forward. Traditional cultures around the world have innately understood the importance of fermenting foods. In very basic terms, fermentation involved innoculating foods with specific bacteria that our bodies can tolerate to inhibit the growth of bacteria that our bodies can’t tolerate. Now this is obviously a very oversimplified explanation of fermentation, but it’s essentially how it works. Traditionally fermentation has been an amazing technique with a two-fold positive effect: it naturally preserves the shelf life of specific foods (think sourkrout) while helping to diversify our microbiome.

I believe that the key to a strong immune system and a healthy microbiome is to eat foods that are both pre-biotic AND pro-biotic. What this means is having foods in our diet that feed  the bacteria that live in our guts in addition to adding in foods that are already populated with diverse bacteria. It’s actually not as difficult as it sounds, here’s how you do it:

Regularly incorporate foods like artichokes, asparagus, dark leafy greens, brassicas (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage) and then sprinkle in some pro-biotic foods like yogurt or kefir, kim chee and sour krout. It doesn’t mean that you have to eat a whole bowl of any of these things every but rather think of them as parts of a bigger picture of the spectrum of foods. For instance, I try to have a bite of fermented vegetables, a swig of kefir and some living vinegar at some point every day. Then I make sure that my meals are predominantly vegetable focused and have plenty of pre-biotic vegetables. Here’s a terrific and easy dish that incorporates all of these things in one recipe:

BrusselsFor the Salad

  • 1 pound Brussels Sprouts, shaved paper thin on a mandoline or with a food processor
  • 1 Apple, I like Braeburn or Winesap apples, finely sliced
  • 1 shallot, finely sliced
  • 4 radishes, thinly sliced
  • 2 TBSP fresh mint, minced
  • 2 TBSP fresh basil, minced
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Combine in a salad bowl

 For the vinaigrette

  • 1/3 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/3 cup full fat kefir
  • ½ clove garlic, grated on a micro plane
  • 1 tsp chia seeds
  • 1/3 Extra virgin olive oil
Combine all ingredients in a mason jar fitted with a lid and shake until fully incorporated. Dress the salad and enjoy immediately.