I love fermentation. My counter holds jars of living things that are bubbling and changing right in front of my eyes. Gardening is too labor intensive these days, but I can still grow a bounty of bacteria in the convenience of my own kitchen as I nurture all sorts of bacteria in batches of keifer, kombucha, saurkraut, cortido and garlic-y carrots. I love eating food that’s alive and I remember hearing in my yoga training that food that is freshly picked and not cut too many times and not cooked at all or very much generally has more prana – more nourishment available to your body. I think of fermented foods as having explosively huge amounts of prana, specifically good, living bacteria, and I enjoy it so much, every step of the way.
For many years, I’ve believed in the benefits of probiotic fermented foods whole-heartedly but I never proclaimed it from the mountaintops because the source of all of my information either came from my own inconclusive experience or from internet sources that have a tendency toward white text, black backgrounds and crappy photos. These websites sound scientific but I’m suspicious that the “research” is most written by self-declared fermentation experts who are drunk on kombucha, not unlike myself. What happened tonight that made it okay to come out of the closet on this one? A well-researched radio program. That’s right. I was driving home from my Wednesday class and Radio Lab was on and I was listening to the episode called “Gut Feelings.” It is all about our digestive system. I caught the part of the program that explores the question, “How does bacteria in our gut effect our brain?”
The Radio Lab guys interviewed a scientist in Cork, Ireland who conducted an experiment done on rats to see if lactobacilli, (one of the good bacteria found in fermented foods!!!), had an effect on the mood and personality of rats.
Here’s what they did:
The scientist fed one group of rats broth, which had no bacteria. The second group of rats ate lots of this lactobacilli. After a couple of weeks, the scientist exposed the rats to mild water stress, which means he dropped each rat into a bowl of comfortably warm water and watched to see what would happen.
The broth-fed rats swam and swam, looking for a way out, for about 4 minutes. Then, they gave up. They quit swimming and they just hung out in the bowl in despair.
The bacteria-fed rats were dropped into the bowl of water and they swam around for 4…5…6…minutes, and then the scientist pulled the rat out. At minute six, those rats still hadn’t given up.
Blood tests showed that the cortisol levels, stress hormones, in the broth rats sent them into a panic. They were flooded with freak-out messages and then, exhausted, fell into despair and gave up. The blood tests in the second group of rats showed that they had only half of the cortisol present in their bloodstream as the first rats and they also found significant amounts of GABA present in their brains. GABA is one of the neuro-chemicals that tells our body “it’s all going to be alright” and when it’s present, our relaxation response kick in. With this in play, the rat swims on.
How does this bacteria in the gut communicate with the brain? No one fully understands this yet, but we do know that we have a lot of the body’s supply of the neurotransmitter, seratonin, in our gut… 80% of it, actually. We also have a bunch of neurons, or nerve cells in our viscera along with a big bundle of nerves in between, so there’s a highway already in place for this sort of gut/brain communication. The scientist thought it probably had a lot to do with this brain bound highway, the vagus nerve, so in the next round of experiments, he did all the same stuff but before the water stress, he cut the vagus nerve in the lactobacilli-fed rats. After the nerve was cut, they behaved the same way that the broth-rats did. Without the communication from the gut bacterium, the rat had the same stress and same despair response as the broth-eaters.
FERMENTATION. It can help you digest! It can improve your mood! It can improve your personality! Want better brain chemistry? Brew kombucha!!! Maybe you are sold on all of this, or maybe not. But I think we can agree that the food we eat has a huge impact on our ability to carry out the functions of our day and what we eat can influence our mood in big ways. I have personally seen how eating a box of cookies affects my mood, and it’s not good. What we put into our bodies impacts our body’s chemistry and this current research suggests that good gut bacteria can even effect our attitude and outlook. This is so exciting to me, I can hardly stand it. So I carry on with my food-chemistry experiments, the photo-documentation, and the personal research and I’ll keep eating the edible results. Yum.
This is truly nerdy info on fermentation– no black background!
Get started brewing Kombucha! If you live in Austin and would like a scoby, I’d LOVE to give you one.