The answer is, surprisingly, not much. That’s not to say that my approach was perfect. But I was able to refine and juggle along the way so that the end curriculum is pretty close to what I’d recommend to others. The one exception though is my eater’s digest month.
Though the subject of gut health inevitably made its way into my research from the get go, it wasn’t until the fourth quarter of my project that I officially tackled healing my microbiome.
For those who don’t know what that is, here’s the skinny: your microbiome includes the trillions of bacteria currently taking up residence in your body (out numbering your own cells three to one!). The majority of that population lives in our gut, which also just so happens to be home to the majority of our immune system.
There’s been a lot of recent research about the role the microbiome plays in warding off sickness, losing weight, and maintaining good mental health. And the findings challenge the long-held notion that germs should be met with an iron clad Trump immigration policy.
Studies have shown that the balance of bacteria on our skin, in our nether regions, and, most notably, throughout our 25-foot long intestinal tract, can either protect us from or propel us toward a variety of “modern plagues” like obesity, depression, and, especially, autoimmune disease.
We are learning more about the impact of our gut health every day. It’s one area of research that truly marries holistic-minded practitioners with cut-and-dry Western doctors. And it’s forcing the latter to consider the role that diet plays in our health.
While I inadvertently tackled many lifestyle areas that improved the health of my gut—switching to natural products, removing chlorine and other harsh chemicals from my tap, eating more anti-inflammatory foods—my one regret is that I didn’t start introducing fermented foods into my life sooner.
Why are probiotic rich lacto-fermented foods so good for gut health?
In the last several years, as more research has emerged about the role of the microbiome, the probiotics market has sky-rocketed into a 30-billion-dollar global industry.
One of the general misconceptions about probiotics is that these bottled bugs join your existing bacteria and take permanent residence in the gut. It is a myth that Erica and Justin Sonnenburg helped me dispel during my project (you can read more about my conversation with them here, or of course in the book). Rather, probiotic bacteria serve as ‘dummies’ that allow the immune system to fine-tune its response to more dangerous microbes.
While the pills can be helpful for some, there are several reasons why eating your probiotic nutrients is the way to go.
1. Diversity. Your microbiome is more unique than a fingerprint—there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. For this reason, it’s unrealistic that anyone will invent one probiotic pill that works for everyone. Lacto-fermented foods—like, yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha—contain the most bacterial diversity. Adding a variety of these foods to your diet gives you the opportunity to hedge your bets in a way that no one pill ever could.
2. Effectiveness. Many pills aren’t encased in a substantial enough way to make it past your stomach acid. Meaning, most of the bugs will die before they ever reach the area of your body where they’re needed. Ancient cultures have been eating fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi for centuries for their nutritional value and effectiveness.
3. Cross-training. You’ll hear a lot of people talk about “prebiotics,” which are needed for probiotics to be effective. Prebiotics are essentially the whole vegetable aisle! So why buy an expensive “symbiotic” pill when you could just eat some lacto-fermented vegetables instead? Fermented sauerkraut cross-trains your system with new transient bacteria and feeds the existing community at the same time. It’s like giving your gut an all-inclusive weekend at Canyon Ranch versus a day-pass to Bally Total Fitness followed by dinner at McDonald’s.
4. It’s easy. Sure, drinking a bottle of kombucha a day will cut into your pay check just like any health-focused specialty drink. But some lacto-fermented foods could not be easier to DIY. And the easiest of all is Homemade Sauerkraut.
How do you make homemade sauerkraut, you ask?
The process is incredibly simple and hands-off. As someone who’s dabbled in making her own kombucha, I can attest to how easy kraut is in comparison—it’s the perfect gateway DIY.
For a pint-sized yield, besides cabbage, salt and spices, all you’ll need for the fermentation process is:
- 1 quart-sized mason jar
- 1 small (8 ounce) jelly-sized jar
- 1 square of cheesecloth
- 1 rubber band (just save one from your veggie bunches)
The contents of your jar can be prepared in less than 15 minutes, and then you only need about an hour of hands-on attention before setting the mixture aside for 3 to 10 days to ferment.
I found this resource on The Kitchn to be incredibly helpful for troubleshooting, but not much can go wrong. My only pitfall the first go around was not taking the proper time to massage the cabbage with salt before adding it to the jar. If you don’t really work it in until the veggies are limp and softened, you probably won’t end up with enough juices to submerge the leaves later on. This can cause mold to form on the top.
Keep that liquid covering the cabbage, and you’ll be golden.
And speaking of golden, the fun part about making your own kraut is getting creative with the flavors. My favorite so far is this spicy turmeric version, which results in a beautiful golden kraut. Caraway seeds are used in the classic German version, and you can also play around with curry powder, or various Korean chiles if you’re going the kimchi route.
Though I’ve tried many store-bought craft brands in an effort to eat one fermented food a day (per my project challenge), I can say that making your own is much more satisfying. And certainly a less expensive way to maintain the habit.
For those of you who are already intimidated, make sure to buy your sauerkraut from the refrigerated section of the store. Anything shelf stable will not have the beneficial bacteria you need. I’m hoping though that most of you will be open to giving your own jar a try.
Read on for my homemade fermented sauerkraut recipe with red chili and turmeric! And if you want to see me make it in person, make sure to sign up for my workshop at WELL Summit on November 4th. It’s called Ferment-Me Not, and per the title, we’ll be talking all about other creative ways to get your probiotic-rich edibles on!
From one healthy hedonist, to another,
Spicy Turmeric Homemade Sauerkraut
- 1/2 a medium head cabbage about 1 pound
- 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 1/4 red chili flakes
- 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- Remove the thick outer layers of the cabbage until you reach a smooth light green interior. Save one of the leaves and rinse well. Cut the trimmed cabbage head into quarters lengthwise. Remove the core at the center and thinly slice.
- In a large mixing bowl, toss the cabbage with the salt. With clean hands massage the shredded cabbage for 2 to 5 minutes, or until it begins to release some of its liquid and soften. You may want to rush this step, but don’t – it’s really important for making sure you have enough liquid later on to submerge the cabbage. Add the red chili flakes and turmeric, and toss to combine.
- Transfer the cabbage to a quart-sized mason jar along with any liquid. Using a spoon, push the cabbage down until it compacts into the bottom half of the jar, releasing more juices in the process. Allow to sit for an hour, then “tamp” down the cabbage again with your spoon—muddling the cabbage like this will continue to release more liquid. Once the juices cover the cabbage, insert the cleaned cabbage leaf and top with the smaller jar. You can weight it down with a rock, but just the jar is usually heavy enough to make sure the shredded cabbage stays beneath the brine (see note). Cover the top of the jar with the cheese cloth and secure with a rubber band so no flies or bugs can get in.
- Set the jar in a cool, shaded area of your countertop and ferment for 3-10 days. For the first 24 hours, tamp it down every couple hours by placing some pressure on the smaller interior jar. Start tasting it after the first few days and when the cabbage tastes sufficiently fermented, cover and store in the refrigerator. The kraut will keep for a few months.