Since it’s been en vogue to spout health-conscious lingo for quite some time now, I’m seizing the opportunity to write my way through the adventure of healing my digestive system. I figure you won’t be grossed out by that. I figure you already know what gut flora is or that certain foods aggravate IBS or what SIBO stands for (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). But even if you don’t, I’m writing this for accountability and hopefully to inspire those of you who need help in this department, too.
The first thing to lock down mentally is every body is unique. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that each of our bodies functions so differently and – though there are general healing patterns among food and medicine – what works as a one-time remedy for some may not work for others. In fact, it rarely does. Which is why there are thousands of opinions, prescriptions, and home remedies floating around online. We have to view our own body as a unique mystery – a physiological labyrinth of systems and clues, telling us what it needs and what it doesn’t. It’s a hard quest, but it’s vital that we have this long-term perspective if we ever hope to discover the root of our problems.
Since living alone, I’m slowly and at times unsuccessfully finding the rhythm of budgeting, establishing a monthly shopping routine, and discovering new grocery stores. It used to be pretty simple, back when I didn’t care what I put in my body. This time last year, the highlight of my day was when I could clock out and drive to Safeway for fried chicken and ice cream. This is no exaggeration. I literally ate fried chicken and ice cream all the time – which may be a plausible reason why my gut hasn’t improved. Once I discovered that only soft foods went down well, ice cream was the obvious first choice. Until I converted to plain Greek yogurt with honey, which wasn’t nearly as exciting. Then I was told to go off dairy, so I swore off ice cream altogether. Until I found the dairy-free dessert aisle in Whole Foods, flashing its almond, cashew, soy, and coconut-based chocolate ice cream that ran anywhere from $3.99-8.99 a pint.
Living alone, coupled with an increasingly troubled digestive tract, caused me to reassess my grocery routine and the necessity of gut-friendly food. As a recap, in the last two months, I’ve gone off gluten and dairy for health purposes. Though a gastroenterologist ruled out Celiac disease and an allergist ruled out a cow’s milk dairy allergy, I’ve decided to stick to an [almost] Paleo diet to avoid all the added hormones and genetically-modified grains. My face has already cleared up significantly after dismissing dairy, so that’s a plus.
First, about grocery stores. Back when Winco and Safeway were the staples, things were simple. Food wasn’t very exciting, and I wasn’t very excited to be there. Once I started branching out and listening to peer pressure, certain stores that used to be daunting and, frankly, too far away have turned into regular visits. A wondrous new world opened, and my checking account has reason to worry. Living off Sunset Boulevard in Rocklin, the hub of all culinary commerce, I now single out stores for their specific health and budget-conscious ingredients; then I make a list categorized by which grocery store stocks the best or cheapest version of each. (Yes, it’s the OCD.) Grocery shopping has become a Saturday-long venture to anywhere between 2-6 stores in a day. Optimistically, my argument is that I’m out to stockpile food for the whole month, but I’m learning that food molds real fast. You haven’t known terror until you’ve looked inside a three-day old mug of Chia pudding and found a dried forest of noxious, sprouted seeds.
My first major endeavor was buying raw milk to grow kefir. I assume ya’ll know what it looks like by now, but if not, natural kefir grains look like a combination of smashed tonsils and cottage cheese. Apparently, it’s probiotic heaven, though not even as a potent as other forms of probiotics. What I learned was, though healthier than Diet Coke, the manufactured kefir drink you can buy at the store is little more than sweetened strawberries and yogurt; and whatever good gut flora you intend to grow will be immediately counteracted by the excess of yeast sprouting from its sugar content.
After drinking the first batch about four days after my friend—we’ll call her Rose—gave the grains to me, I squirmed under the tart zing of what tasted like rancid milk (note: because you’re using raw milk, it will go rancid quicker than pasteurized milk, though my jar tasted like this only from the potency of the probiotic liquid). In order to avoid drinking the kefir grains themselves, you have to first strain the liquid. Trouble is, I don’t own a strainer yet, so I grabbed the only cup-shaped item with holes I could find: a loose leaf tea strainer. This obviously took some time since tea strainers hold about .02 ounces of liquid at a time. But once I managed to strain the whole batch, the next step was to add new milk to the jar of grains, which meant a special trip to The Nugget – the only grocery store in the area that sells raw milk. My friend’s family knows the locally-based Organic Pastures owners personally, so they’ve heard first-hand about the legal gymnastics required to sell it. (I admit, part of the intrigue of drinking raw milk is feeling like somewhat of a pirate.) I finished the process by drinking the strained kefir, adding new milk to the grains, and letting it sit a couple more days. The fourth time I drank this concoction, the flavor was even tangier because I’d finally remembered you’re supposed to store the jar in a warm cupboard, not in the fridge (which makes sense if you’ve ever made bread).
So, the saga of the kefir continued to grow—just like its soupy, curdled fingers. I didn’t know if I could bear drinking it plain much longer. If it weren’t for the hope of it devouring all that nasty bacteria, I’d stopped after the first chug. But if there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a good challenge.
After almost two weeks of this, I was hit with a terrible bout of nausea. It felt like the stomach flu and had me laid up in bed for hours. So I let my grains go to pot and switched to kombucha. Two days after downing an entire bottle in 120 seconds, I had the exact same reaction… except worse. I actually had to take four days off work last week, due to being so sick to my stomach I couldn’t stand up. This was unacceptable.
To make a long story not that short, I’m pretty certain it was the probiotics that did it. Now, whether it was actually a detrimental reaction or just the bad bacteria dying off (a good thing!), I don’t know. I only know that I’m down to one sick day left at work, so I’m definitely skeptical of high doses of concentrated probiotics anytime soon again. Since I still need to find a way to get lactobacillus thermophilus into my stomach, I recently picked up a bottle of Nature’s Life strawberry/apple flavored acidophilus from Whole Foods (which, by the way, was almost cheaper than their ice cream). So far, I haven’t noticed any negative effects, though I’m only taking a TBS each morning, so here’s hoping I’ve met my probiotic soulmate. Trader Joe’s raw sauerkraut is also in my fridge, but I’m not sure which is worse – a bitter, soupy substance or tart, acidic strands of cabbage. It’s pretty neck and neck.
So, go forth and ferment! Try a variety of probiotics and see how they make you feel. If you have negative side effects like I did, it might be a good idea to have testing done for SIBO in case the nausea you’re feeling is actually being caused by a good thing.
Or, if you fall off the proverbial bandwagon, feel free to just pick up dinner at Safeway. I hear they have killer fried chicken and ice cream. Don’t worry – I’ll pretend like I don’t see you.