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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 firsthand 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 joints.
After years of being sick, I came to understand that bacteria played a key role in both my getting sick and my process of healing. I often get asked about “good” and “bad” bacteria and I think that’s indicative of a fundamental flaw in how we, as Americans, tend to look at health. It’s not about good versus evil, but about balance. This often seems hard for us to achieve in our daily lives—working enough so 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 to maintain a broad spectrum or wide variety of bacteria. This helps us metabolize our foods, strengthen our immune systems and keep our bodies happy.
So how do we do it? Well, I think it’s important to look back in order to move forward. In the past, cultures around the world innately understood the importance of fermenting foods. In very basic terms, fermentation involved inoculating foods with specific bacteria that our bodies can tolerate to inhibit the growth of bacteria that our bodies can’t tolerate. This is obviously an oversimplified explanation of fermentation, but that’s essentially how it works. Fermentation is an amazing technique with a two-fold positive effect: it naturally preserves the shelf life of specific foods (think sauerkraut) 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 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 sauerkraut. It doesn’t mean you have to eat a whole bowl of any of these things every but rather think of them as components of a bigger picture on 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 my meals are predominantly vegetable-focused and have plenty of pre-biotic vegetables.
Here’s a terrific and easy way to prepare artichokes.
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