Why is one mouse fat and one mouse skinny?

Why is my friend thin and can eat anything and I just look at food and get fat? Is it because I don’t have any willpower? Is it because I’m not a gym rat? Is it because I have some buried childhood trauma and I self-comfort with food? Or is it because something is off in the bacteria in my gut that may be causing drug addict-like cravings. Do I have a low-level infection that causes weight gain or is my particular flora really good at squeezing every bit of energy (whether I need it or not) out of my food?

Last fall, while I walking around Western Springs, I came across a business called Omstead tucked away on a side street. I was intrigued by it’s slogan Grow Nourish Thrive. Every time I passed it I became more curious and finally looked it up on the web. I found out the owner of Omstead is Amy Cox and that she gave cooking classes and is a health coach. I’ve always struggled with food and especially sugar and I figured I’d make an appointment and see if she could help me. I emailed her, “I’ve tried everything! You’re my last resort!”

I was sold at the hug she gave and the cup of tea she brewed for me when I arrived for my appointment. We began discussing my eating problems.

“I open cookies in the grocery store and eat them while I’m shopping. I eat my kids’ prized Halloween Candy. I’ve baked entire batches of cookies and eaten them before anyone knew I had baked. And that’s just for starters.”

“You need to take my fermenting class. I think it will help you.”

I didn’t have a clue what fermenting was and unlike most people didn’t ask. I took her word for it and signed up. I’m an artist and artists do things like this because so much of our schooling involves input from our teachers and fellow students. We learn to be coached and take advice. We are also extremely curious and love trying something new. I didn’t even look up the definition of fermenting before I showed up at her house to learn this new art.

The first thing Amy talked to our about was Leaky Gut Syndrome. It is a condition where the lining of the small intestine becomes damaged and allows toxins, bacteria and waste to leak out and into our blood stream. This “leaking” can cause autoimmune problems and inflammation, the new buzzword that describes what many in the medical field think is the cause of cancer, heart disease and neurological disorders. Leaky Gut Syndrome is responsible for so many ailments that Amy gave us a two-page single-spaced list and I had about twenty of the symptoms at first glance. How do you cure a damaged gut? Eat healthier, cut out bad foods and build up your intestinal flora with probiotics. Amy’s class was about getting your probiotics through fermented foods, not taking a pill.

What is fermentation? It is one of the oldest methods that people all over the world used to preserve their foods. Store bought salsa goes bad in a few days, fermented salsa last for months in the refrigerator. The bacteria used in fermenting makes the food more nutritious by producing protein, amino acids and vitamins during the process. For example the lowly, boring cabbage becomes rich in flavors and nutrients once fermented. That explains the ubiquitous sauerkraut and Kimchi.

Fermenting food eliminates antinutrients and toxins. It also introduces good bacteria into your gut. Amy’s theory was that instead of trying to cut bad food out of my diet, I could crowd them out with fermented foods. It sounded good to me. I was tired of dieting and judging myself each morning. Did I stick to my healthy diet? Usually not. I was tired of unhealthy food choices running my life. The thought that eating fermented foods could also make me happier and more pleasant was icing on the cake!

Many want to be able to pop a probiotic pill and be done with it. I had been doing that well before I began working with Amy without noticing any improvement in my health or wellbeing. There are some concerns as to whether or not the pill makes it into your gut alive or is it killed by stomach acid. Also probiotics tend to be pretty expensive, so if you ferment with them, it’s like loaves and fishes or breeding bunnies; they multiply so you get more bang, no pun intended, for your buck.

As an artist and former home baker, fermenting appeals to those sides of me. I mix fruits and vegetables together based on color and texture. I create fermented cocktails for my husband and I’ve created “probiotic sodas” that my kids enjoy. I’ve also been experimenting with using “starter” from already fermented foods so I don’t always use my powdered probiotics.

During my fermenting journey, I began noticing references to fermenting and gut health. I read Brain Maker by David Perlmutter, MD. He’s the guy who wrote Grain Brain, which says that carbohydrates are destroying our brains and causing many neurological disorders from ADHD to dementia. In his latest book, Brain Maker, he talks about how your gut health and microbiome also affect the health of your brain. Some feel that changing your gut bacteria is more important than changing what you eat. But honestly, once you start eating fermented foods your diet will evolve naturally.

In the midst of all of this experimenting, one of my children was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). I told his doctor that I was fermenting foods and he suggested my son take a probiotic, VSL #3, which was sold through Costco. He said he wasn’t sure how productive taking a pill was so he suggested he sprinkle it on his food.

“I’ll take it one step further. I’ll ferment my food with the VSL #3.”
“Hmm…I don’t know anything about that.”

The VSL #3 is mighty potent and you could see the energy in the jars of juices and salsas I was fermenting. There is always a fizzy, popping symphony playing out on my kitchen counter! My son was feeling better within days of eating my fermented foods.

In spite of the benefits, my kids don’t like eating sauerkraut or fermented blueberries but they will drink fermented juices if they are available in eight-ounce containers stacked by flavor in the fridge. So I began fermenting fresh orange juice, lemonade and Concord grape juice for them and vegetable juices for me and my husband.

Since I’ve begun drinking three of these a day, my sugar and carbohydrate cravings have stopped. Just to be clear, when I went on no-carb diets before, like Atkins, I also had no cravings but I felt like I was walking on a tightrope, surrounded by cookies and bread. One false move and I was neck deep in carbs. Now I feel like I am walking on the sidewalk with temptation a little further off. I can comfortably walk among the enemy without getting captured. Not only do I physically feel better and in control, I feel happier, less anxious and more mindful. Which brings us to the gut-brain connection, which is starting to make headlines.

Our brains are our crowning glory, so to speak. They allow us to move and think about cool stuff, to live. We hold our brains responsible for when we feel happy, sad, anxious or depressed. But are these bad feelings our brain’s fault? Or could it be something else? There is only one other organ in the body that has as many capabilities as the brain: our gut. When people say they have a “gut feeling” about something they probably don’t realize that they are speaking literally. The gut is now being referred to as the second brain.

If you want to understand the beautiful synergy between your bacteria, brain and bowels, read Gut by Giulia Enders. It was just published in the United States this year. It is a fun and informative read with simple but good illustrations of the workings of your gut done by her sister, Jill. I discovered this gem while reading her book:

“In 2013 the first study of intestinal care on healthy humans showed that after taking a probiotic cocktail of certain bacteria some of the subjects brains were unmistakably altered especially in the areas of emotion and pain.”

In her book, she discusses three reasons some people may be overweight. I, of course, found this to be very intriguing. I may not have a character defect after all. It may be that I don’t have enough healthy gut bacteria. We get most of our bacteria from our mothers at birth, so much that you can create family trees based on intestinal flora. So I may have one or more of these:

Chubby Bacteria – These guys are really good at metabolizing food. Nothing goes to waste and therefore could be going to my waist!

Craving Bacteria – This type of gut bacteria may be causing me to want that chocolate cake or hamburger and fries after I’ve already eaten a healthy dinner.

Inflammation – I may have higher levels of infection markers, which cause weight gain. Good bacteria can help reduce the inflammation.

So I’m hoping that I have all three problems and that with my fermented food regimen, I’ll be able to cure myself. I’ll let you know!

If you want to try your hand at fermenting, it is very easy. You can take a class with Amy at Omstead or try it on your own. These are the tools and ingredients that you need:

1. Canning jars with lids
2. Probiotics – I buy the pill form and then open them up
3. Good, clean water
4. Good quality salt – I use Selina Naturally Celtic Sea Salt
5. Fruits and vegetables or fresh fruit juices for drinks

After much experimentation, my family has settled on some favorites: fermented blueberries, salsa, orange juice, grape juice and vegetable juices. Here is how to ferment:

1. Jam your jars four fifths full of your fruits and/or chopped vegetables or fill with juice and leave some room at the top.

2. Add water until it covers your fruits or vegetables.

3. Open one capsule of probiotic powder and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of salt.

4. Screw on tops and let sit on the counter until you see fizzing in the jar. Put in fridge. Enjoy!

Kathleen Thometz is an artist, freelance writer and founder of Doodle Art & Design, a mobile art program. She has one husband, four children and three doodle dogs, Rainbow, Sunshine and Thunderstorm. She blogs at kathleenthometz.com and has contributed to the mid.

Kathleen Thometz

I am an artist, writer, and art instructor with four children, one husband, and two doodle-dogs. I have contributed articles to the mid.com and Chicago Parent Magazine and wrote the Artist's Eye column...