“Fermentation is everywhere, always. It is an everyday miracle, the path of least resistance. Microscopic bacteria and fungi (encompassing yeasts and moulds) are in every breath we take and every bite we eat.”
Sandor Katz - Wild Fermentation
“...your microbial genes… outnumber your human genes by an amazing 100 to 1. It’s a little humbling, but to an outside observer, you are a hybrid creature who is genetically only 1 percent human.”
Scott C. Anderson - The Psychobiotic Revolution
When thinking of gardens, we often think of their product - a beautiful arrangement of luscious plants; we see gardens as artworks - they amplify the divine. Before my partner Maggie received her horticultural training, our walks in the lanes were defined by their vistas and the abstract pleasure of connectedness to green things. Since then, those green things have been named; they’ve been seen, both in isolation and in companionship within their respective ecosystems. Walking has been slowed to strolls by pockets of Latin; a flash of blue in the undergrowth, a rare fern. Plants are no longer hidden; we see them and increasingly, ask questions around how they came to be thriving in that precise spot. Sometimes we peel back the duvet of turf to reveal the mattress beneath, its matrix of roots and mycelium, worms and earth, all intensely alive. “What is going on here?” we ask. Because while we know that plants appreciate a bed, neither they, nor the earth that supports them, is asleep.
There was a reason I came to understand fermentation. Of course, I know now the extent to which my survival depends on my mutual symbiosis with my intestinal flora: I know now that when I die, if I am buried, I will provide them with one last meal - a small gift, it feels, for a life. No, the reason was that I didn’t have a fridge or money and using bacteria to preserve food and make it more nutritious was a win win. It transpired that the produce we were raising on the allotment could spontaneously ferment in the right conditions and that these processes have been used to that end for thousands of years, right up until the dawn of the Capitalocene.
Capitalism is the gift that keeps on taking; giving us urgency in exchange for humanity. But folks, we are all beholden to our bacteria and there’s no hurrying them up. They do not care about keeping up with your lifestyle, so much as being nurtured by it, in their own time. They are, in other words, exactly like a garden. Nature has a way of making its way towards equilibrium, but we are not in balanced times - seemingly catapulting ourselves towards an ever lonesome polarity; to extreme monoculture and subsequently, ill health. You know how it goes: when we poison the soil, when we deplete it of its nutrients and of its life, we lose the benefits in our diets. The same goes for our guts.
Sometimes I use mouthwash, but I wonder about the label. It says that it kills 99.9% of my bacteria, by which they mean 100% of my bacteria. So I’m stood by the sink swooshing it around my mouth thinking, “Is this bleach? Isn’t this what bleach does? Why am I happy to swish this stuff around my mouth, but not bleach?” As always, it’s because I’m oversimplifying - it’s very easy to think of all bacteria as germs, by which we usually mean pathogens, but this is not true. Some bacteria species like V. cholerae causes Cholera and, if not controlled, will make us die pretty quickly. For the most part this control is achieved by what has become known as hygiene, to which I am a fairly sceptical subscriber. When I kill everything off in my mouth, I at least know that, as one of the ways that bacteria are able to enter my body (in the air, on food etc.), my mouth can repopulate. I just pray that I don’t swallow, because if the mouthwash gets into my gut and kills everything off in there, I might have quite a hard time of it. We are fragile, we humans.
It’s actually surprisingly difficult to just kill one kind of bacteria, so we inevitably, crudely, just kill them all. This is a mistake, but one that has not been considered greatly until relatively recently, as we are becoming increasingly aware of the effects of our industrialised diets and our naive attitudes to date. There are around 30-40 species that make up 99% of our microbiota (with hundreds more making rare appearances in the remaining 1%), or which only a few have been studied in any depth. There’s so much we don’t know, so of course, let’s just kill it off and hope it wasn’t useful!
Fortunately, the lion’s share of bacteria that can confer some form of beneficial effect are often the same ones that occur spontaneously in fermented foods, and so are both already well known and well researched. One of the most important is the Lactobacillus genus, whose name is the “L.” in many of your dietary supplements. Interestingly, Lactobacillus are found in large numbers both in the intestines and the vagina, which may go some way towards explaining my female friend’s assertions that live cultured yoghurt, topically applied, is a good cure for thrush.
Lactobacillus gets the name from their habit of producing lactic acid, which in turn is named after the Latin for milk (lac). This is the acid the eats away at the enamel on my teeth and is the lactic acid that can build up in your muscles during exercise. Several thousand years ago, a genetic mutation occurred in multiple locations that allowed humans to continue to digest the lactose sugars in animal milk after infancy. The rest of you who are lactose intolerant, the enzymes produced by certain L. species added to yoghurt may help in your digestion of it.
One strain of L. Rhamnosus, known as Lactobacillus Rhamnosus GG (ATCC 53103) is the most studied probiotic bacterium on the planet (over 800 separate reports), which is either as a result of commercial interests, or its ability to improve a multitude of symptoms or both. I read with interest that, like D Mannose, L. Rhamnosus evidently prevents pathogens from adhering to the lining of the vagina and urinary system. And both L. Rhamnosus and L. Plantarum appear to have benefits for those suffering with IBS. This much I know, when I’ve got a funky tum, it’s live fermented foods I reach for first over anything. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve absolutely cured myself in the past of chronic gut aches with the addition of fermented porridge, cider vinegar and sauerkraut to my diet.
But as I write this, I’ve got to confess, there’s some tightness in there brewing up. It’s just a little prod, but I’ve probably not been keeping on top of what I’m eating. Pathogens are like weeds, they need attention before they take over the whole garden.
Graeme Walker, July 2018
Wild Fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz
The Psychobiotic Revolution, Scott C. Anderson et al.
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