A few weeks after Thanksgiving, I received the results of a naturopathic stool test I’d done in November. Called the GI Effects Panel, this test looks for parasites in your gut, measures your inflammatory markers, and reveals insights about your gut bacteria. As expected, I had high inflammation and no detectable parasites. But a graphic showed that, compared to the general population, my bacterial diversity was abysmal.
This test is inconclusive and not embraced by the scientific community, though it is respected among alternative practitioners. But I believed it, mainly because it jived perfectly with what I sensed was happening inside me. It fit with my deductions about what had happened to cause my illness–my diet and lifestyle in 2013 must have altered my gut bacteria. It also fit with the scientific research I had done. We are supposed to have hundreds of species of bacteria in our guts, and if we don’t have enough of the good ones, then the bad ones can proliferate. Somehow they wreak havoc–my understanding of this part is vague–by irritating the gut lining or releasing toxins, and I suspected that havoc was the trigger for my autoimmune disease. In general, gut bacteria diversity is good, so that the good critters can prevail.
I kept encountering references to the role of gut bacteria in ulcerative colitis. In The Autoimmune Epidemic, Donna Jackson Nakazawa interviews Gerry Mullin, a prominent doctor who focuses on the microbiome. Nakazawa writes:
It has become well accepted, says Mullin, “that gut bacteria help drive inflammatory bowel disease and inflammation, and over the past decade an increasing number of studies indicate that by changing the mix of bacteria, probiotics may help patients with these autoimmune diseases of the gut significantly.”
Many scientific papers say something similar. For example, a 2006 article says that colitis and Crohn’s disease develop when genetically predisposed people’s immune systems over-respond to bad bacteria.
I was already taking a probiotic, but this test result fueled my desire to do more. I decided to up my intake of fermented foods.
Both the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and my macrobiotic diet encourage fermented foods, though they differ on which ones they recommend–the SCD emphasizes homemade yogurt, while in macrobiotics miso soup is essential. (Miso is beneficial to bacteria only if cooked properly, mixing the miso into the water after it has cooled somewhat. Boiling kills beneficial bacteria.) I figured, if my bacterial diversity was low in general, it shouldn’t hurt to add various kinds of fermented foods, as long as they weren’t inflammatory. Yogurt contains the milk protein casein as well as some lactose, so I would keep avoiding it for now, in case I had an intolerance. But I decided to try sauerkraut, which is usually just fermented cabbage and salt.
I dislike sauerkraut, unfortunately. I don’t like pickly tastes and had always given Ron my pickles at restaurants. But now I began eating a large forkful of sauerkraut just before lunch and dinner, wrinkling my nose and forcing it down like cough syrup (which I actually do like). Then I could move on to the actual meal of rice, tofu or lentils, and kale, which was all I ate these days, and which, thankfully, my taste buds did enjoy.
Within a few days, the strangest thing began to happen. I began to crave sauerkraut, even though I still didn’t like it. It felt as though my gut bacteria were sending a signal to my conscious brain: We do like this! Give us more! I couldn’t tell if I was imagining things. It was the only explanation I could come up with for craving a food I didn’t like.
My post-Thanksgiving flare-up was subsiding. This time I had been unscientific with my remedies, starting Apriso, Proctofoam, and sauerkraut around the same time, and meanwhile reverting back to my safest meal. That meant I didn’t know which of these factors was restoring my health. It might have been all of them combined. For now, though, I didn’t care–it was a relief to improve. I hoped that soon I would return at least to what had become my new norm, with just a little diarrhea and more energy. I was sick of being sick.