Dr Mark Shigenaga

Dr Mark Shigenaga

I recently attended a conference on the topic of grains. Of course, the current state of affairs in the grain world is not complete without a discussion of the rise in the numbers of people who have stopped eating wheat.

There on the panel, one of the compelling theories put forward came from Michael Pollan, and one of his source experts, Mark Shigenaga PhD from the Children’s Hospital Oakland Institute. They postulate that our current difficulties digesting and tolerating wheat and gluten are all caused by an unhealthy balance of bacteria in our guts. This inner world, composed of about 2 pounds of microscopic bacteria, has evolved along with the human animal, and is as vital to our digestive process as stomach acids and food enzymes.

It was a fascinating discussion. This idea goes a long way toward helping all the non-celiacs who are having difficulty with wheat. Celiacs, well, your problem with gluten is forever. But you probably need to rebuild your gut health, too, from all the damage that was done before you were diagnosed.

A link to Michael Pollan’s article on the human gut biome is here.

So the theory is that our woes when we eat wheat have more to do with the imbalances within than with the wheat itself. A healthy gut should have a flourishing and diverse population of certain kinds of bacteria. Those bacteria only live in your gut if you feed them the things they like, and you don’t kill them off with antibiotics and eating habits that they don’t like. They are completely at your mercy, really. You can say what you want about how you eat, your bacteria know the truth.

This idea has been getting lots of research these days, with compelling results. It turns out that eating meat and dairy causes some bacteria to flourish that are linked to inflammation and disease, but giving up meat and dairy for just a week will cause those bad bugs to die off. (link to NPR article here.) Other research shows a completely different balance of bacteria in obese people’s guts, and when they lose weight and keep it off, their bacterial balance looks more like that of thin people. Other bacteria are linked to diabetes, even alcohol-related liver disease.

According to Dr Shigenaga, we are devastating our inner landscape on a daily basis, and paying the price. ” The typical American diet is high in fat, and irritates the GI tract. Too much food at one time has an enormous impact. The gut wall becomes leaky and permeable, and gut bacteria and food antigens leak out. This triggers an immune system response, and that is one of the reasons you feel tired and fatigued. It’s an immunologic response, and your endocrine system is disrupted. Inflammatory cytokines cause you to store belly fat, and in the brain, the same proteins that come from infections are present, and it causes the brain to go to sleep.”

Wow, and if that were not a scary picture of a typical American meal from the inside out, he goes on: “Alcohol and fat act like detergent. They strip and solubilize the gut. The gut wall is disturbed for hours, up to a day. Even without alcohol, you get a food hangover.”

So what do we do, to get the balance of good bacteria in our inner landscape up to optimum levels? Well, it’s more than just eating a yogurt.

Steps to better gut health

Feed your inner critters properly. According to Mr Pollan, your diet is the most important factor in allowing good bacteria to flourish. Drop processed and packaged foods, eat high fiber foods like whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruits-bacteria LOVE them. Even if you are celiac, you should steer toward whole gluten free grains, like quinoa, millet, buckwheat, teff, amaranth, corn and sorghum. If you juice, make sure that you use a masticating juicer so that you are getting fiber with your fabulous gut-feeding vegetables, all in liquid form.

Small, lower fat meals. Dr Shigenaga really opened my eyes when he talked about how our bacterial balance waxes and wanes. His recommendation to eat smaller, lower fat meals makes alot of sense, when you think about the overload that we usually put on our poor guts. Each time we bomb our bacteria with a huge, high fat meal and lots of alcohol, we decimate the population and irritate our gut lining, making it permeable.

Repopulate regularly with fermented foods and probiotics. There are thousands of good bacteria out there, and that yogurt that claims to be so great only has one or two. Naturally fermented sauerkraut, kimchee, kombucha, and pickles are great sources of live colonies of good bacteria. Yogurts and kefirs made from either milk or non-dairy milks are also good, just don’t limit yourself to just one source for all your bacterial reinforcements. If you are up for it, making your own kraut or kimchee is a very accessible, beginner level way to enter the world of home fermentation.

Check out Sandor Katz’s books. Katz is a leading figure in the fermentation revolution that is going on today. When you find refrigerated, unpasteurized kimchee, kraut and other raw ferments at your store, they are probably made by a nice local company, who were inspired by Katz or another fermenter who happily spread the word about how to make good pickles.

Feed your gut, and you may find that lots of foods that once disagreed with you are easier to enjoy. And that is worth eating a bit of pickle!