When my son was born by cesarean section, he had profound colic, likely caused by acid reflux (also known as baby reflux). Three years later he still had issues with stomach acid and, as a result, was suffering from night terrors.
He would wake up from a fitful sleep five nights a week and scream and scream. It would take hours to settle him back down and then — whoops! — it was time for Mom to go to work. This went on for a year, and our whole household was going crazy.
Desperate for answers, I took him to a chiropractor who prescribed a regimen of probiotics, which are live microorganisms (commonly consumed as part of fermented foods) that, among other things, can improve a person’s digestive balance. We sprinkled the stuff into his milk, and within just 36 hours, the intense nightmares stopped. They never came back.
I’ve been obsessed with micro-organisms, or microbes, ever since.
According to an ever-expanding body of research, there are some 100 trillion microbes living in, on and around you at any given time. Some scientists refer to this swarm of simple, single-cell organisms as a microbial cloud, some call it the microbiome, some simply refer to it as our “forgotten organ,” because properly functioning microbes are so essential for good health. I call them the Ghosts in the Machine.
Microbes are in our guts, on our skin, in our lungs, in our mouths, on our hair, in our ears, and on our eyes. In other words, they’re everywhere. They include bacteria, viruses and fungi, and we’d die without them. The hunger hormone, ghrelin, is regulated by the stomach microbe Helicobacter pylori; without H. pylori (which, in excess, can cause ulcers) you’d never know to stop eating.
Gut flora (the microbial stuff that lives in our digestive tracts) synthesizes vitamin B-12 and vitamin K, helps prevent disease, and aids in food digestion. For instance, at least 50 percent of our body waste is made up of dead gut microbes, and we poop out our weight in gut microbes every year, depending on diet. Even the appendix, which was long considered a useless evolutionary leftover, like a tail, is a backup storage unit for good gut flora, in case of diarrhea or some other stomach-related catastrophe.
Women’s vaginas contain a host of their own good bacteria, and during delivery, a newborn is literally coated with healthy microbes. Other microbes show up in breast milk, as do special prebiotics — food for the microbes that humans can’t digest. By the time an infant is in preschool, he or she will have gone from a relatively sterile thing to a fully inhabited microbial presence, just like you and me.
Since microflora aids in the excretion of everything from excess nutrients to neurotoxins, scientists are looking into whether an increased incidence of unhealthy microflora could cause or contribute to problems such as autism. They’re also studying whether autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes, could have roots in microflora imbalances.
In fact, many of these same scientists argue that we need to start seeing people less as single units, and more like rainforests or coral reefs. In other words, each of us is a system — an ecology on legs.
My obsession with the ghosts in our machines was sparked by a sick child, and it eventually turned my brain into a science textbook. But ultimately — like almost all of my obsessions — it’s also led to a lot of tasty meals.
In particular, it’s reintroduced me to the simplicity and flavor of fermented foods that are rich in good bacteria and that help combat our healthy gut flora’s worst enemies, which include antibiotics, stress and nutrient-poor, highly acidic diets.
Here, in no particular order, are a few of my favorite fermented foods, many of which are also loaded with enzymes that will help you absorb healthy nutrients, and — if you’re plagued with a digestive disorder — could help rebalance your system.
Pickles, Sauerkraut and Kimchi
There are two kinds of pickled vegetables in the world: those made with vinegar and those that are naturally fermented. Natural fermentation is the process of allowing good bacteria to grow and excrete lactic acid, which preserves the vegetable. Brine pickles (like a good old kosher dill), Korean kimchi and traditional German sauerkraut all carry healthy bacteria into your gastrointestinal tract. If you’re at the grocery store and wondering which pickled foods are probiotic, and which aren’t, note where they’re located. Those that are naturally fermented typically live in the refrigerated section of the grocery store and will often bear a note on the outside saying they contain live cultures.
Miso, Tempeh and Natto
Miso paste is made from fermented soybeans, as are tempeh and love-it-or-hate-it stinky natto. They all carry live, good microbes, and a spoon of living miso stirred into hot water is the one of the fastest, healthiest broths you can make. Look for it in the refrigerated section of the grocery store.
Yogurt, Kefir and Raw-Milk Cheeses
You know that old saw about eating yogurt to settle an upset stomach? That’s not just about the stomach-coating effect — it’s also about good bacteria recolonizing your gastrointestinal tract. Yogurt, kefir and raw-milk cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano, or certain cheddars and Goudas will all contain a smidgen of the live bacteria that helped turn them from fresh milk into something magnificent. Some blue cheeses, such as Roquefort, or soft cheeses, such as Brie, have even more living organisms on them, especially in the blue-green or white, soft molds. Cave-aged cheeses also have special micro-organisms living on them. That’s what makes them so tasty.
Salami and Other Fermented Dry Charcuterie
How does meat turn into salami? The same way milk turns into cheese, by fermentation and the lactic-acid production of good bacteria. High-quality salami contains live bacteria, and if there’s a white bloom on the outside, it signifies the same sort of good mold that comes with Brie and other bloomy rind cheeses.
Kvass and Kombucha
Two traditional fermented beverages are kvass (made sometimes from vegetables such as beets, and sometimes from bread) and kombucha (made by fermenting sweetened tea), and they both contain living organisms. They’re a tasty way to get better flora into your life.
I know what you’re thinking: Does this mean that a pepperoni pizza, with its toppings of fermented meat and aged cheese, could actually be good for my healthy flora? Well, yes, but only if you make that pizza yourself from the high-quality ingredients described above, and you avoid the white-flour crust. That’s because industrial animal products and processed flours and sugars appeal more to not-good microbes. And when it comes to feeding the ghost in your machine, you want to give only the friendly ones a place at your table.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.