Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Eating for Your Microbiome

By Maria Noël Groves, RH (AHG), Registered Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Coordinator

Fermenting krauts
Forget about eating for yourself. Did you know that your body is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria, and the standard American diet is starving them out? These good bugs are part of your microbiome, a newly coined phrase that refers to your body's ecosystem - both the human part of you and the microbial part of you. Did you know that microbial cells outnumber human cells in your body 10 to 1?

Before you go reaching for the antiseptic spray, know that the majority of these bugs are good for you. Very good for you. In fact, hundreds of scientists throughout the world are currently studying the human microbiome, and their recently published research is changing the way we think about health and the  human body. They even have their own Disney-esque Microbiome Movie, thanks to the folks at NPR.

The Capitol City of your microbiome is your gut, home to approximately 100 trillion critters that can affect your health in a surprising variety of ways. Not only do they work in tandem with your body and aid digestive function, but they also enhance immune strength and protect you from less desirable critters by making your body less hospitable to unruly house guests like E. coli and Candida.

Your Microbiome May Affect...
  • Your Weight
  • Your Mood
  • Gut Health (including digestion and elimination, Celiac disease, food issues, leaky gut, etc)
  • Cancer Risk
  • Obesity & Blood Sugar Metabolism
  •  Immune Strength
  • Autoimmune Disease & Allergies
  • Yeast & Urinary Tract Infections
  • And More!

Cultivating a Healthy Microbiome 

Starting Life With a Good Start: Your first exposure to beneficial bacteria begins as you enter the world through the birth canal. This and breastfeeding supply you with good bacteria from your mum. In contrast, babies born by C-section and who are bottle fed start life off at a microbial disadvantage. Alas, unless you're about to have a baby and aim to gift your little one with a solid microbial start, this information is too late to act upon. Nonetheless, these are two of the primary ways that we begin to cultivate a healthy microbiome. If you weren't lucky enough to get this natural dose of the goods, there are still things you can do...

Avoid Antibiotics: Antibiotics may be necessary to fend off serious bacterial diseases. However, in doing so, they kill off the good guys as well. Only use antibiotics when they're truly necessary for medicine, and take protibiocs during and after antibiotic treatment to help offset the damage (more on that in a moment). Also consider seeking out food from animals raised naturally without antibiotics automatically added to their feed. This practice is prohibited for organically certified meat and dairy products, and many local and pasture- or grass-based farmers also eschew the practice.

Add in Probiotics: There are two main ways to do this...
  • Fermented Food helps recolonize the good guys. Although fermented dairy is popular (think: yogurt and kefir with live active cultures), also consider other forms of fermented foods including lactofermented veggies like real sauerkraut and kimchi. I love Micro Mama's products (made with organic local vegetables and available in the produce section of the Co-op), and I also make my own - it's really easy (details, directions and pics here)
Sauerkraut in the making

  •  Probiotic Supplements offer a big dose of good guys when needed, and they are mighty convenient. Opt for a probiotic with Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, at least 1 billion daily, though you may want to take much larger amounts than that. Seek out products with a special coating to help the live bacteria travel safely through the stomach (filled with germ-killing acid) and release in the intestines where they are most useful.
Feed them Prebiotics: Probiotics need something to chew on in order to thrive. In particular, they love fiber and resistant starch, especially certain foods and herbs. Prebiotics specifically encourage the growth of good guys. But, if your diet is devoid of these good foods, you may want to add them in sloooowly while also boosting your good guys with probotics and/or fermented foods. Expect a transition time of gas and bloating (especially if you jump right in). This is like getting sore after your first workout in years - your body needs to get used to what's happening and become recolonized with the good guys. Our ancestors (who had amazing microbiomes) used to get more than 100 grams of fiber a day. Most Americans get an abysmal 15 grams. Here are some examples...
  • Inulin, a type of fiber sold as and naturally present in sunflower family root vegetables including chicory, dandelion, burdock, and Jerusalem artichokes (aka sunchokes) as well as above ground parts (artichokes, dandelion leaves) and other plants like garlic, onions, leeks, broccoli, and asparagus. The less cooked, the better. This is like gourmet food for your good critters.

Dandelion Leaves & Roots Contain Inulin

  • Fiber-Rich Whole Foods also support the good guys, especially beans, whole grains (in moderation), leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and plenty of veggies. Resistant starch is sometimes considered a third type of fiber (beyond soluble and insoluble); these carbohydrates are not digested by the human side of our digestive system. Beans, green bananas, and unprocessed whole grains contain resistant starch. Heating, then cooling, starchy foods (think: potatoes, rice, beans) will also turn some of those carbohydrates into resistant starch. 
Whole grains offer a good source of fiber. Shown here: Wild Blend rice, tri-color quinoa, millet, and buckwheat.
  • Herbs & Spices, while their effects on the microbiome have not yet been as well researched as inulin and fiber, they do seem to provide benefit. Specifically, ginger and rose petals have been shown to inhibit pathogenic germs while encouraging the vitality of beneficial probiotic.
Rose petals support good bugs while discouraging the bad and healing the gut
Get Out in Nature: "As the amount of glass and concrete in your neighborhood increases and the diversity of native plants decreases, the microbial composition of your skin changes and the risk for allergies goes up," notes Leach in Honor Thy Symbionts. Spending time outside, near and in dirt and trees, and with windows wide open helps counteract the negative effects of city living.
Plenty of fruits and veggies (especially raw) as well as fermented foods like yogurt help feed the good guys.

Get Dirty: On the same line as "get out in nature," don't be afraid of a little exposure to dirt and germs through gardening, organic produce with clods of dirt still attached, hanging out with pets and other animals, and using plain soap and water to wash up rather than disinfectants and sanitizer.

This tea blend contains marshmallow root, licorice, plantain leaf, rose petals, cinnamon chips, star anise, and cloves.
Heal the Gut: Once again, this is the herbalist in me talking. Microbiome research hasn't really delved into it just yet. However, many people who are in a state of dysbiosis (too many bad guys, too few good guys) experience digestive discomfort ranging from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to serious inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and including gas, pain, bloating, diarrhea and/or constipation, indigestion, increased food allergies and autoimmune disease, and gut inflammation including leaky gut (aka intestinal permeability). Herbs that heal wounds (plantain leaf, calendula flowers, etc.), tighten and tone the gut lining (rose petals, plantain leaf) soothe and slime mucous membranes (slippery elm, marshmallow root, licorice), and support good microbes while discouraging the bad (ginger, rose petals, cinnamon, licorice, spices) can all play a role in rehabilitating your gut and microbiome. My favorite way to deliver these herbs is via tea, which is easy to make and quite tasty.

Though this research is still new, the principles behind a microbiome-friendly diet are ancient and certainly worth trying. Now, put down the hand sanitizer, and find yourself a bowl of beans, dandelion greens, and kraut...

Most of the information is gleaned from the work of Jeff Leach. Check out his books and also learn more at and

Maria sees clients and teaches classes at Wintergreen Botanicals Herbal Clinic & Education Center in Allenstown. Visit to learn more about herbs and her practice. Her first herbal wellness book is due out from Storey Publishing in March 2016.

The statements made on this blog have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, prescribe, recommend, or offer medical advice. Please see your health care practitioner for help regarding choices and to avoid herb-drug interactions.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Food & Mood ~ The Missing Link

By Kelly Lang, Holistic Health Coach & Co-op Wellness Educator

In the age of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, most people are making food choices based on how it will impact their physical health. Sadly, it may not be until one of these conditions surfaces that someone will even think of focusing on healthier eating. A person who is thin and physically healthy might feel like their food choices don’t make a whole lot of difference or they might believe that they can eat “whatever they want” since there is no weight gain or obvious affect on health.

The intellectual mind knows that eating healthier food is better for the body, but in the absence of physical symptoms, many people disregard this notion.

The missing consideration is that food affects more than just our physical health, and it is, in fact, a key influence on mood and mental capacity as well. Our brains, like any other organ, require nutrients for proper functioning.

The very brain chemicals that determine whether you feel happy or calm or focused or alert are dependent on nutrients to stimulate their release.

The challenge that you may face if you suffer from mood issues or lack of focus is that you may tend to crave foods that are lacking in nutrient content (like simple carbs, sugar, and caffeine). In truth, what your brain needs to feel better is quite likely to be exactly the opposite of the foods you are choosing. That is where the vicious cycle begins, as you eat foods that deny your brain of the nutrients needed, you continue to feel depressed or anxious or unfocused, and you continue to crave those same foods. It is true that comfort foods will cause you to feel better, temporarily, but they only perpetuate a cycle of dependence, not healing.

The first step to breaking this vicious cycle is just having the awareness that you can either choose to fortify your brain with nutrients or you can give in to cravings for food that makes you feel better temporarily while ultimately depleting you.

If you choose to fortify your brain, here are a few of the important nutrients to consider:

Protein supplies amino acids – critical for brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, GABA, etc.
These brain chemicals determine how you feel, act, and function. Protein also stabilizes blood sugar levels, which is a common factor in irritability and focus issues. Protein is found in various food sources, both animal and plant based.

Essential Fatty Acids, Especially Omega 3 Fats, are important for both brain development and brain structure, as well as neurotransmitter function. These are found in a variety of foods but the most common sources are fish (and fish oil), flax seed, chia seeds, and walnuts.

B Vitamins help fight depression and improve memory and overall brain function. Some great food sources include chicken, fish, eggs, beets, spinach and other dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. B12 can only be obtained from animal sources, so vegetarians and especially vegans may need to supplement to get this particular B vitamin.

Join me for my free class on Food & Mood in either Concord on May 19 or New London on July 9, and we’ll discuss helpful foods in greater detail.

Kelly is an Integrative Nutrition® Trained and Certified Health Coach, mother of four, and founder of Green Life Wellness, a holistic health coaching practice based in New Hampshire. Learn more at

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Why You May or May Not Have "Gluten Issues"

by Maria Noël Groves, RH (AHG), Clinical Herbalist & Co-op Wellness Educator

Gluten - the sticky, glue-like protein in wheat and its relatives as well as barley and rye (and hidden in many other foods) - is the "in" thing to avoid right now. The number of American households seeking gluten-free foods has increased dramatically over the past ten years, with 30 percent of U.S. adults currently trying to reduce or eliminate gluten from their diets. Why? Most shoppers believe GF products are healthier, and about a third think they will lose weight (in spite of media and book hype, there's no scientific evidence to support this).

Diligent moms and young shoppers top the list of GF trendsetters, and popular books including Grain Brain and Wheat Belly help drive the trend. For people who embark on the personal experiment of going GF without any particular diagnosis, those who stick with it say they feel remarkably better. Digestive complaints, skin issues, mood, inflammation, autoimmune disease... gone or dramatically reduced.

Why do so many people have "gluten issues" nowadays? While some of it might be more trend than reality, there are several key reasons why an individual might do better ditching the gluten...

Celiac Disease: This is a medically recognized autoimmune disorder in which the body mounts an immune attack on the small intestine whenever the person eats gluten. Over time, this causes major health issues, including increased risk of malnutrition, rashes, diabetes, infertility, osteoporosis, cancer, and more. Only a small number of people seeking a gluten-free diet actually have Celiac disease, but having a close relative with the disease dramatically ups your risk (from 1 in 100 to 1 in 10 chance). Solution? The only real treatment is to avoid gluten completely - no cheating, not even traces. Tests are more reliable if performed while you're still eating gluten. Learn more here.

Gluten Allergy: Varying degrees of other allergic responses may underlie gluten sensitivities, including IgG and IgE responses to gluten or other proteins in gluten. More subtle gluten allergy symptoms may look a bit like Celiac disease, but the autoimmune component is generally not present. Reactions can range from severe - such as the IgE-related anaphylaxis - to vague and chronic IgG symptoms. Solution? You may need eat a completely gluten-free diet or be fine with occasional small doses or less gluten-rich forms of wheat. Different tests are called for to rule out the two types of allergic responses, and tests are more reliable if performed while you're still eating gluten.

FODMAPs: Carbohydrates, not gluten, may be the real culprit behind much of our "gluten intolerance," especially that which coincides with digestive disturbance, flatulence, and Irritable Bowel Disorder (IBS). Many different foods contain certain types of carbohydrates that gum up the works in sensitive digestive systems. High FODMAP (Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and Polyols) foods include gluten-rich grains, dairy/lactose,  beans, inulin fiber and inulin-rich root crops, garlic, onions, sugar alcohols like xylitol and sorbitol, as well as some fruits. Studies have shown that 70 percent of people with IBS improved with a low FODMAP diet, and that many with "gluten issues" were actually more reactive to FODMAPs than gluten. Interestingly, FODMAP starches and fibers actually feed beneficial bacteria. But if you're short on the good guys or have an overabundance of the bad, high FODMAP foods ferment in the gut, draw in water, and cause cramping, diarrhea, and IBS symptoms. Solution? Initially, most experts recommend a low FODMAP diet (which can be extremely limiting) until symptoms abate. Give your gut a chance to heal. Then slowly reintroduce individual foods to see which ones you do or don't tolerate. As a practitioner who finds digestive health and the human microbiome fascinating, I feel the FODMAP diet ignores the underlying issue: lack of good beneficial bacteria in the gut. Cutting out FODMAPs just removes beneficial bacteria's food and makes the bad guys less cranky. A low-FODMAP diet may initially stop the irritation, but consider slowly adding sources of beneficial bacteria into your diet (through probiotic supplements, fermented veggies, maybe fermented dairy) as you gradually integrate more high-FODMAP and high-fiber foods into your diet to support your microbiome. Soothing, gut-healing herbs including marshmallow root, slippery elm, and licorice in tea may also help heal gut irritation and damage. You may also find that small doses of fermented or sprouted grains and slow-fermented (think: sourdough, levian) or sprouted grain products are more easily digested.

Glyphosate Reaction: Some gluten-sufferers marvel at how they can travel abroad and eat European pasta and bread with impunity yet feel miserable when they eat it here in the States. Why? We don't know for sure, but one reason could be the way in which grains have recently begun treated by some farmers. Recent research has called attention to the trend of using glyphosate (Roundup) herbicides in grain production and the increase in both Celiac disease and other forms of gluten intolerance. An increasing number of conventional grain farmers are spraying Roundup on their crops just before/at harvest time. This isn't to supppress weeds, it's to increase yield. As the herbicide kills the crop, the plant attempts to reproduce by popping out its seeds/grains. While the practice may not be widespread among all grain farmers, grains treated in this manner are mixed into the grain supply so that any products made with grain are likely to be contaminated. Solution? Buying certified organic products is the only way to be sure your grains are "clean." (I asked the folks at our beloved King Arthur Flour, and they confirmed that even some of their conventional grain farmers use the practice. Very disappointing.) Although officially Roundup and its use on our food is considered safe for consumption, several studies have found that ingestion can damage the gut, aggravate the immune system, cause an imbalance in gut microbes, and a range of other health issues.

Modern Wheat: Years of scientific natural and (to a much lesser extent) genetically modified plant breeding to increase yields now has put wheat on our plate that is very different from what our agrarian ancestors ate. Solution? Some people do just fine with heritage and low-gluten varieties of wheat, including spelt and farro, even though they are still wheat and do contain some gluten.

Glycemic Index of foods high in gluten and wheat tends to be high, meaning that they break down into simple sugars rapidly in your body, causing blood sugar spikes, crashes, and insulin problems. Eating too many high-glycemic foods eventually puts you at a high risk of insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, type 2 diabetes, obesity, sugar cravings, hardening of the arteries, high triglycerides and cholesterol, and high blood pressure. "Fuzzy brain" symptoms may be a result of other types of "gluten issues," but they can also simply mean that your body is not doing well on so many carbs (be them from grains, fruit, processed food, sugar, etc.). Solution? Limit your high-glycemic, high-carbohydrate food intake. When you do eat carbs, aim for whole-food, high-fiber sources such as whole grains, root vegetables, seeds, berries, nuts, and beans. Be sure to pair them with protein and good fats to mellow the sugar rush.

I find that many break their gluten-free experiment with high-glycemic, indulgent junk food like pizza. So much can make your body cranky with that! Instead, try breaking it with just a few whole wheat crackers, a small serving of farro, or one piece of sprouted bread, and be sure to pair it with protein and good fats.

Regardless of your the cause of your "gluten issues," remember to focus your diet on these super healthy, nutrient-dense, and naturally gluten-free foods:
  • Organic gluten-free grains including quinoa, millet, amaranth, buckwheat, rice, corn, and certified gluten-free oats
  • Winter squash and root vegetables including potatoes, sweet potatoes, rutabega, turnips, beets
  • Plenty of green (or red, purple) leafy vegetables
  • Fruit, especially berries
  • Beans, lentils, nuts, seeds
  • Low-mercury, sustainably caught or farmed fish and shellfish
  • Good fats from olives, coconuts, avocado, nuts, seeds, and maybe dairy
  • Organic whole and fermented soy (tempeh, miso, tofu, edamame) in moderation (if you tolerate it)
  • Organic and pasture-raised backyard eggs  (if you tolerate them)
  • Organic and pasture-raised dairy in moderation if at all (if you tolerate it)
  • Organic and pasture-raised ("grass fed") meat, poultry, etc. in moderation if at all
Most gluten-free packaged foods should be considered a treat and not standard fare. Common GF flours such as tapioca starch, rice flour, etc. are high-glycemic and full of empty calories. You're better off eating primarily (or completely) whole foods that are naturally gluten-free.

Getting Guidance: When in doubt, don't hesitate to seek the aid of an integrative physician, registered dietitian/nutritionist, naturopathic doctor, or herbalist to develop a plan customized for your needs. Several of the Co-op's Wellness Educators specialize in nutrition and gluten-free diets, and many other excellent practitioners can be found in New Hampshire. Doctors, naturopaths, and dietitians can usually order tests to sleuth out Celiac disease, IgG, or IgE allergies, as well as insulin and blood sugar. Remember that these tests tend to be most accurate if performed before you go on a gluten-free diet.

Maria runs Wintergreen Botanicals Herbal Clinic & Education Center in Allenstown. Visit to learn more about herbs and her practice. Her first herbal wellness book is due out from Storey Publishing in March 2016.

The statements made on this blog have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, prescribe, recommend, or offer medical advice. Please see your health care practitioner for help regarding choices and to avoid herb-drug interactions.