“All disease begins in the gut.”
Before I jump into my sauerkraut recipes (I promise the wait will be worth it 🙂 …and it will be my next post! I was up to my elbows in sauerkraut the other day taking pictures specifically for the upcoming recipe posting…but, I digress), I thought I would pause and talk a little more about the importance of gut health and why home-fermented sauerkraut is beneficial. Hopefully this post will shed a little more light onto my love for/obsession with sauerkraut and persuade you to jump on the bandwagon of incorporating fermented foods (i.e. sauerkraut) into your own diet.
In my last couple posts, I briefly mentioned the knowledge I’ve been gaining about the human gut microbiome – the trillions of bacteria that make up the ecosystem within our intestines – and things like leaky gut. For me, poor gut health was most likely achieved from a lifetime of eating sugar and processed foods, predisposed genetics, wheat and gluten-based foods, more sugary foods, anthrax vaccines, more processed foods, NSAIDS and other chemicals in my environment, and more sugar (did I mention I used to have a terrible sweet tooth…), which–I think–eventually manifested itself as Crohn’s Disease. I’ll probably never know which one of these was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it was most certainly a combination of all of the above that took a toll on my health, intestinal bacteria, and immune system.
For many others, poor gut health doesn’t necessarily mean Crohn’s Disease, but it may be the cause of a wide variety of problems that you don’t even realize are related to gut health. An imbalanced microbiome, where the good intestinal bacteria have been outnumbered by the bad, can cause depression, abdominal pain, dry skin, arthritis, brain fog, low energy and a number of other extraintestinal symptoms (Want to learn more? I recommend reading The Microbiome Diet by Raphael Kellman, M.D.).
“When our guts are healthy…the intestines are only slightly permeable, like the thin mesh of an intact net, to allow minute quantities of water and nutrients through the gut’s thin barrier and into the bloodstream,” explains Dr. Josh Axe in his book, Eat Dirt. “However, when the holes in the intestinal wall get too big, larger molecules, such as gluten and casein, and other foreign microbes can pass through and start wandering all over the body…the body reacts to them as foreign bodies, causing systemic inflammation throughout.” When this happens, any organ can be affected.
At this point, you might be wondering what causes the holes in the intestinal wall to become large enough for the foreign bodies to pass through…for many people (probably myself included) it’s the standard American diet. Sugar, processed foods, wheat, gluten, NSAIDS, all cause damage to our gut lining and can lead to a leaky gut. There are numerous books and articles that can be easily searched to give you the scientific explanation and more medical jargon than what I’m using here, but in my own layman’s terms, when we eat these foods and fill our bodies with NSAIDS, antibiotics, and other chemicals, we feed the bad bacteria in our guts and starve out the healthy ones. We also do damage to our intestinal lining, making our cells unable to absorb nutrients, and cause the tight junctions among the cells to become loose enough that larger molecules can pass through. Keep in mind that our gut wall is only one cell thick. That’s all that’s keeping the outside world…well, outside. So when we ingest foods and chemicals that our bodies have not yet evolved to digest, we damage the lining.
Once the foreign microbes have made their way through the gut wall (through leaky gut/intestinal permeability) and into our blood stream, our bodies view the molecules as foreign invaders and launch an immune response to attack them. When the body’s immune system is activated this way, it causes inflammation and can result in or worsen a number of autoimmune diseases. There’s still a lot of ongoing research and debate in the medical community about leaky gut…kind of a chicken-or-the-egg debate, what came first, leaky gut or disease? Either way, it doesn’t really matter because the bottom line is, if the gut isn’t healthy, that needs to be addressed, not just masked.
So how do we heal a leaky gut and care for our microbiome? Well, it’s definitely a complex issue, but sauerkraut and other fermented foods (kimchi, fermented vegetables, kefir, yogurt, kombucha) can be a good starting place. These foods are alive with healthy bacteria that will directly replenish and support our intestinal ecosystems, support our immune systems, and can be the first step in healing our permeable intestines. This is why I believe sauerkraut was such a game changer in my own health and fight against Crohn’s. By eliminating all the sugar and processed foods that were allowing the bad bacteria to thrive and compromising the integrity of my gut wall, and by sending in the good guys to regain a foothold in my intestines, my immune system started behaving. This, as I mentioned in My Crohn’s Diet 1.0 post, was also paired with high quality grass-fed meats, a limited selection of highly-nutritious vegetables, bone broth (later on), healthy oils, and a few select supplements.
As a final thought, remember that our bodies are highly complex and marvelous machines; which is why I think it’s so important that we provide it with the best possible fuel we can. And, because we are so complex, we can not hope to just take one pill, incorporate one food, or address one part of the equation and expect results. Although I sing the highest praises for sauerkraut and fermented foods, it isn’t sauerkraut alone that is benefiting my health. We must care for our bodies and that includes the trillions of bacteria we are graciously serving as host to that take up residence in our gut.
So, chew on that for awhile…and now I believe you are ready for my home-fermented sauerkraut recipes 🙂