Can the bacteria in your gut make you a happier person?

image provided by Calvin Tribelhorn

Guest post by Calvin Tribelhorn

What if I told you there is a parasite that can alter the structure of your brain? A parasite that causes you to seek out dangerous and risky behaviour, increasing your chances of being in a car accident? A parasite that causes certain animals to lose their natural fear of predators.

This parasite is not fiction, but a single-celled organism that lives in the guts of cats, called Toxoplasma gondii. It demonstrates how much influence our gut has over our brain, mood, emotions and actions. And begs the question, when it comes to how you act, who is really in control?

How your gut influences your brain.

The colonies of microbes residing in your gut are like tiny drug factories, pumping out different chemicals and substances that affect your brain and mood. One such chemical is Serotonin, where 80% is created as a by product of certain microbes in your gut. The serotonin is then transported up the vagus nerve and experienced by the brain. Serotonin handles mood regulation, sleep and your overall sense of peace.

Further studies suggest that certain microbes may have antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties on par with drugs like citalopram. These studies are only a fraction of the research that is beginning to paint a picture of just how influential our gut microbiome is over our brain. They show the many mental afflictions linked to a disrupted gut microbiome.

 Is autism linked to our gut?

A 2012 paper by Dr Derrick Macfabe describes what happens when rats are injected with something called propionic acid (PPA). The PPA injection provokes peculiar changes in the rats brains. Changes like neuro-inflammation, increased oxidative stress and glutathione depletion. The rats also display abnormal movements, repetitive interests, cognitive deficits, and impaired social interactions.

These are all symptoms associated with people who have autism spectrum disorder. PPA is a fermentation by-product of bacteria found in the gut, primarily desulfovibrio bacteroidetes and Clostridia. Patients with autism have many more species of the clostridium bacteria and have high levels of PPA in their feces. According to Dr Sydney Finegold, antibiotics wipe out or suppress organisms in the gut, but the Clostridia bacteria is one that persists regardless of antibiotics.

 A CBC program titled the autism enigma featured Ellen Bolty, who explains how her son’s behaviour changed after six courses of antibiotics over a two month period for an ear infection. He was later diagnosed with autism. Digging into the research, Ellen came across information about the clostridium bacteria and how an antibiotic called Vancomycin, has proven to be effective in targeting clostridium bacteria. She then started searching for a doctor who would be willing to try the antibiotic on her son. 

After trying the antibiotics the results were astounding. She stated “Within a matter of weeks he became calm, he was aware of his environment. He is able to put puzzles together.” All things he had never done before.

 Vancomycin was able to temporarily suppress the clostridium bacteria, resulting in fewer symptoms associated with autism, however, once the antibiotics wore off, so did its effects and the clostridium bacteria came back. This case led to a pilot study with Dr Finegold, who found that out of ten autistic children who were treated with vancomycin, eight of them had temporary but significant improvements. Now jumping to conclusions about the cause of autism, has not been helpful in the past. But the idea that autism could be the result of a disturbance of the gut is gathering more and more evidence.

The disturbed gut ecosystem would also explain the common gastrointestinal issues autistic children suffer. At this point, saying the gut microbiome is important to your health is the understatement of the year. Dr Martin Blosser says that losing the entire microbiome outright would be as bad as losing your kidneys or liver.

 How to start fixing your gut?

Unlike your kidneys or liver, you can change the makeup of your microbiome by what you put in your mouth. Your microbiome is as unique to you as your fingerprint. We can't choose what kind of start we get in life when it comes to our microbial make-up. But we do have control of the single biggest factor when it comes to the make-up and health of our microbiome. Our diet.

You see microbes are everywhere. And your gut microbiome is always changing depending on the food you eat. Certain foods will feed certain species of bacteria that will either enhance your health, or destroy it. If you eat lots of processed foods and sugar your microbiome will soon reflect an imbalance of species that thrive on those foods, sending signals to your brain to get more and more of those highly processed sugary foods. This escalates cravings to feed this army of harmful microbes that have taken over.

You see the science around the role each strain of species performs is still new. There are so many different types of species that we haven't had the time to track and record them all. And it is only the onset of DNA sequencing that we can investigate this world at all.

What we do know is that among healthy individuals there is a balance of microbes of around 75% beneficial, and 25% not. This balance ensures that your immune system always knows what types of bacteria are harmless and which to get rid of immediately. 

Your gut is like a well trained guard dog, and only by exposing it to the enemy can it learn what to look out for.

Foods for excellent gut health.

If you are reading this you have heard the terms probiotic and prebiotic foods. Prebiotic foods, are foods rich in fiber. Fiber cannot be digested by the human body. In fact, when we eat fiber we are eating for our microbes who like us, need food for fuel. If your microbes don't get fiber they will turn on the mucus lining in your intestines for fuel. This is a huge problem as that is the barrier that keeps microbes, food particles and waste from entering the bloodstream.

The term “Leaky Gut” name describes exactly what is happening within your gut when all is not well. As soon as this barrier is damaged you have a doorway for the contents of the gut to begin leaking into the bloodstream. Which is a huuuge problem! And is the root cause for so many chronic illnesses we see today.

This spikes inflammation in the body, as the immune system goes on high alert to get rid of  whatever has leaked into the bloodstream. Leaky gut has been linked to a number of health problems like Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, and virtually every autoimmune disease.

The key to keeping your microbes energized and healthy is to eat a wide variety of fiber rich foods. Some of my favourite sources of prebiotics are listed below:


The second type of food for maintaining good gut health is probiotics. These are different to pre-biotics as they introduce new colonies and species of bacteria into your gut. Probiotics means ‘for life’ and this term is used when foods contain many bacterial species that reshape your microbiome. Think of them as handy reinforcements in the heat of battle.

Probiotics come in many different forms, but the best and most cost effective way of getting them, is through fermented foods. As with fiber, not all fermented foods are made equal. Certain foods will contain different amounts and varieties of microbes to help repopulate your gut.

There are certain ferments that are both probiotic and prebiotic, meaning they supply your gut with much needed fuel as well as reinforcements of new bacterial strains. Your microbes are the foundation of your metabolism. Without them we would not be able to survive. Eating the right foods so that your microbes are healthy will over time bring your overall health into balance.

Your body is a miraculous machine. One that knows how to heal itself. It just needs to be put into the right state of balance first and then the rest will take care of itself. Getting your gut into balance is the single biggest leap you can do for your overall health, and one that will ensure you are able to live drug free.

This post is by Calvin Tribelhorn. You can see more of Calvin’s work at his website Kommunitea. If you are interested in more information Click here to get Calvin’s free video series on fermented beverages. 


Dear Fermentista :: Will my mobile ferments keep me from love?

My mobile ferments at a campsite

My mobile ferments at a campsite

Dear Kirsten and Christopher,

My name is Ben and I am an addicted fermenter.  

I have an older VW Jetta diesel that has faithfully carried me down some of our country’s most wild and scenic areas.  (I named her Rachel Carson) My problem is her smell.

About a decade ago I gave up fast food and committed to eating real food while traveling.  I began making my own kombucha and fermented veggies on the road. It is so easy! Recently I discovered foraging and wow can I make some wild ferments now. There is nothing like adding a little beach mustard to my kraut…but I am getting side-tracked.

A corner of Rachel’s trunk is my fermentation station which produces tasty ferments and, well, this is my problem: odor. She smells! Especially when I am bumping along a dirt road.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the smell of kimchi and all things fermented. It still surprises me when I open the car door after a long hike in the mountains and am blasted by that steamy scent of fermenting veggies. It makes me smile. 

I am starting to think that it is going to keep me single as I have noticed when I am parked along a street people wrinkle their noses when they walk past my car. My mother is less polite. “Ben,” she says, “you are not going to find yourself a nice girl with that smell.”

I believe the right partner will love the smell. I imagine that we will meet in a busy trailhead parking area as I come hiking out of the woods with a handful of fresh sorrel. We talk and soon sample each other’s creations and spend the rest of our lives together. My friends and my mother say I am dreaming and slightly delusional from eating too many ferments at high altitudes.

Should I give up my mobile ferments for a better chance at romance?


Dear Ben,

We often find ourselves traveling with curing ferments—biohazard of the biz, we suppose. The natural gas produced by some of the particularly odoriferous ones seems like they should be able to power our vehicle, doesn’t it?

We can help you a little here with some management strategies. Ferments on the move need to be sealed—go ahead and tighten that lid. Airlocks are wonderful on a counter but in a trunk seem to burp on every bump in the road.  So set aside your water seal vessels and use canning jars. You will need to let the CO2 out of the jar every day—sometimes twice a day. Do this away from car; the parking lot, a grassy spot, some place that won’t be offended by a little brine. This burping can cause a lot of brine to want to bubble out of your jars so be ready with your clean tamper and push the ferment down quickly. You probably know that though. Once your ferments are cured and tasty you should keep them in a ferment cooler. This will be another barrier to the smell.

Meanwhile we think that you should keep on fermenting. Eating ferments could help you with the confidence you need when the right girl comes along. She will love ferments and that pickle smell will be perfume to her—besides your addiction could be a deal breaker if she doesn’t share your passion.

Good luck,

Kirsten and Christopher


Fermenting Sweet Potatoes

Pressing sweet potatoes to create brine

     It was a simple question. My son asked, “Are these sweet potatoes or yams?”

      I confidently answered, “they are sweet potatoes.” My mind however was exhibiting some doubt; I visualized standing in the produce section in front of the sweet potato display—Jewell yams. I had brought home Jewell yams but I also knew I had identified Jewell yams, Garnet yams, Japanese sweet potatoes, and Beauregard, all as sweet potatoes. Uh-Oh, I thought, what is the difference? My first pass of “asking google” left me more confused than enlightened.  The important thing I came away with was that sweet potatoes and yams are not related botanically, the nutritional content is very different and that sweet potatoes are soft and sweet while yams are starchy.  I read posts that referred to the yam as white and the high beta-carotene content of the yellow and orange-fleshed sweet potato. This did not map to my experience in the grocery store. The tubers that were labeled as sweet potatoes had white flesh and the tubers labeled as yams had rich orange flesh.

     It was getting late; I am a morning person and I was realizing this was a bigger project. The next morning I went and talked to the produce manager. He told me about the orange-fleshed yams and the white or creamy-colored sweet potatoes.  I realized the confusion was bigger than my own. It was in the markets and marketing. 

     All my supposed “sweet potato” ferments had been with the orange-fleshed “yams” for no other reason than they are my personal favorite and the color is beautiful. I bought 10 pounds of a creamy pale variety of sweet potato thinking I had not even begun to try to ferment sweet potatoes.  I shared my confusion with Christopher; “I bought sweet potatoes for an emergency ferment."

     He said, “I wonder if the phrase ‘I bought sweet potatoes for an emergency ferment’ has ever been uttered in human history.”  I wasn’t sure he got the gravity of the situation.

     I went back to researching the difference, it turns out most tubers in the grocery stores in this country are indeed sweet potatoes even when labeled yams. I had been fermenting sweet potatoes along.  True yams are grown in Africa and in the Caribbean and very few ever end up in our US grocery stores—especially not in rural southern Oregon. If you happen to find a true yam you will not be confused. They are larger, they have rounded ends, their skin is tough—almost bark-like, and the flesh is sticky.

     So why all the confusion?

     I did learn there has been confusion for many years. Here is the beginning of the second chapter of a book written on sweet potatoes in 1896: “Since the little word “Yam” is the cause of great confusion in the nomenclature of sweet potatoes, especially in the Southern States, it may be well to give some space here to the discussion of the vegetable of which the word is more properly the name.  The word Yam…is of African origin and means “to eat” in several dialects…”

     It is believed that when orange-fleshed, softer-textured sweet potatoes were introduced in the southern United States, growers wanted to differentiate them from the more traditional, white-fleshed types.  The African word nyami was used by the slaves to describe the southern sweet potato as it reminded them of the starchy, edible root from lily family of plants that they knew from their homeland. It was adopted as yam for these softer sweet potatoes, which incidentally are in the morning glory family and most likely native to the Americas.

     Now that we know the difference let’s talk about fermenting them.

“Lactic-acid fermentation also has some other distinct advantages, e.g., the food becomes resistant to microbial spoilage and to development of toxins (Kalantzopoulos 1997). Sweet potato, in tropical regions, is consumed in the households of small farmers and poor people. Night blindness is a major physiological disorder among these people due to vitamin A deficiency, which can be alleviated by regular consumption of orange-flesh (b-carotene-rich) sweet potato either fresh, boiled and as lacto-pickles.”–S.H. PANDA, M. PARMANICK and R.C. RAY


     Sweet potatoes are considered the world’s seventh most important food crop. A study was done in India in 2006 to see if lactic acid sweet potato pickle would be viable for small-scale industries. They deemed lactic-acid fermentation as “an important technology” in developing nations. They were interested not only in the nutritional benefits but also the “hygienic” potential because it is a safe way to process food. The study concluded that sweet potatoes could be pickled and that the flavor was pleasing.


     We are going to say the flavor is more than pleasing. It is amazing.


     Use sweet potatoes as you would carrots. They respond and look quite similar in a ferment.

Sweet Potato Ferment

Makes 2 quarts

5 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

1 medium onion, diced

1 green bell pepper, diced

5 cloves garlic, finely minced

3–4 dried tomatoes, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, grated

1 tablespoons whole coriander seeds

2 teaspoons cayenne powder

1–2 tablespoons salt

In this ferment there is no shredding. Instead we are slicing the sweet potatoes quite fine. This is best done with the slicer side of a grater or the slicing blade in your food processor.

Add the rest of the ingredients, then it is the same—salt and submerge.

Allow to ferment for about 2 weeks.

For some it's flu shots, for others kraut shots...

Briny Lemonade

Briny Lemonade

The brine from pickling shredded vegetables is pure vegetable juice. Remember, this liquid is achieved by shredding your vegetables, often cabbage, and through the further breaking down of the cells with salt and pressing. When these concentrated vegetable juices undergo fermentation they become a rich cloudy elixir containing not only the properties of the vegetable but an increase in vitamins C and B along with the additional beneficial bacteria (probiotics), enzymes, and minerals produced by the process. Kraut juice is also high in electrolytes. Folk remedies in many cultures have found healing in fermented vegetables and the resulting brines.

Brine was a precious commodity when we made small batches of kraut with only a tablespoon or so left over at the bottom of an empty jar, but when our kraut making became commercial, with 10-gallon batches of kraut or kimchi, we were faced with a huge surplus and very little space to store it. It seemed wrong to send it down the drain, so we purchased a couple dozen glass, USA-made shot glasses and took a few bottles of brine to market to see what would happen. Turns out people loved it and it became a mainstay. We happily made a dent in our surplus, 1.5 ounces at a time.

Christopher usually took on the job of bartender and identified four types of shot drinkers.

The Natives

Usually Eastern Europeans who grew up depending upon sauerkraut brine after a late night at the discos.  Given our market was on Saturday, we provided relief to more than a few.

The Drinkers

Often it would be the woman of a couple that ventured to taste the kraut, with the man hanging back just at the edge of the canopy, out of the sun but not close enough to commit to tasting anything.  Our small chalk written sign that read “Brine Shots $1” proved a siren’s song to these men, eventually pulling them in with a crumpled dollar bill in hand.

The Believers

Some folks do their homework and understand gut biota.  For them a shot of brine is an inoculation, a quick infusion of the healthy microbes. They were the  regulars, coming every Saturday and leaving a little lighter.

The Naughty Ones

There are people that want to knock back a shot glass in the middle of the street in the middle of a market. They would often giggle or make a dramatic play of it, convinced they were somehow being mischievous.

This blog is about flavor and the enjoyment of fermented foods, so if your first reaction is still–ick, yuck, no way, really? –or if you simply don’t like brine straight up, try making plain sauerkraut brine into “lemonade”.


1 cup sauerkraut brine
3/4 – 1 cup unrefined sugar or honey
one whole lemon thinly sliced
1 cup warm water
3 – 4 cups cold water
optional variation: grate in a little bit of fresh ginger to taste

Make a simple syrup with 3/4 cup unrefined sugar or honey and 1 cup warm water. Mix until your sweetener is completely dissolved.

Place your syrup into a pitcher and add the sauerkraut brine, cold water and lemon slices. Give the lemon slices a twist to release some of the lemon juice as you are putting them into the pitcher. Add optional ginger at this point.

Let this sit for about a half hour to allow the flavors to mingle.

Serve over ice for a refreshing summer beverage, or serve room temperature for a cozy healing beverage.

Lastly if you are interested in some of the science behind cabbages and their anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties you might want to check these links out.

The Journal of Food Protection in September 2006 published a study that found that the juice from brassica oleracea leaves (members of the cabbage family) was effective in inhibiting the growth of Salmonella Enteritidis, verotoxigenic Escherichia coli O157:H7, E. coli HB producing thermolabile toxin, nontoxigenic E. coli, and Listeria monocytogenes.

Food Chemistry Toxicology published a study in October 2010, wherein researchers found that a “bio-converted product of cabbage” (fermented kraut brine) displayed potential anti-candida effects. It concluded that fermented cabbage juice (kraut brine) has potential therapeutic value of medicinal significance to control Candida species including clinical isolates.

Of Mice and Men...

By Christopher Shockey

Some days at the farmers market probiotics seems to be in the air, or at least on the minds of a lot of people that find their way to the shade of our canopy.  Usually it goes something like:


“So, this stuff has probiotics in it right?” they ask.

“Yep” I say nodding my head.

“Cool” they reply, also nodding.


Sometimes it feels a bit shallow but honestly we didn’t get into this business for the health claims…instead for the taste and the beauty of the process.  The health aspects are a big plus and a source to introduce people to fermented foods. For us this is a bonus, we are thankful and realize we should know more but there is only so much time in the day.  A few weeks ago in one of our favorite periodicals to come in the mail - The Week - a small article with the title “How the gut affects mood” caught my eye.


It was a quick summary of an article that appeared last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - which we do not receive in the mail - by researchers in Canada and Ireland who have been working with mice.  No they haven’t been feeding sauerkraut to those little guys but they were feeding them a soup full of Lactobacillus rhamnosus, which is a species of bacteria naturally in our human intestines and interestingly enough as been patented by some enterprising Finnish researchers.  When their tummies were full of this bacteria broth the mice did a funny thing - they mellowed out.  You would know a mellow mouse from a normal mouse because they do things like walk out into the middle of the maze, instead of clinging to the sides or when thrown in a pool of water with no clear beach to pull-out they swam around without lower levels of stress hormones.


The researchers suspect that the key between the belly and the brain has to do with the Vagus Nerve, which connects the brain to the gut in mice and humans.  When they severed this nerve to a subset of the bacteria-rich broth lovers they were back to their normal wall-clinging, water-fearing mouse selves.


So what does this mean for us?  It is unclear from my research.  The folks that published the research are imagining that it could lead to probiotics replacing pharmaceuticals for disorders like depression and anxiety.  UCLA’s gastroenterologist and neuroscientist Emeran Mayer isn’t so sure.  He says what’s good for rodents isn’t necessarily good for humans.  Still, it’s exciting research and gives us something to talk about at the market.


“So, this stuff has probiotics in it like Lactobacillus rhamnosus, right?” they ask.

“Certainly relatives that will increase the diversity and health of your microbiome and stuimulate your intestinal epithelial cells” I say nodding my head.

“Cool” they reply, also nodding.