This blog post is about the importance of good gut bacteria. I will be writing about actual gardening later, but not today. For me, the learning on this topic happened alongside my learning on the evils of sugar.
It all began with an ear infection almost two years ago. When the blocked ear that I’d been ignoring and hoped would go away became a sharp stabbing pain that felt like a needle in my brain, I went to the doctor and was prescribed a course of antibiotics. All things considered, my health has been mostly good throughout my life, and I can’t remember when I last took antibiotics prior to this; maybe never. I didn’t take any probiotics with the antibiotics; I didn’t know how important this was back then. The antibiotics cleared up the ear infection pretty smartly, but left me feeling absolutely exhausted like never before.
Looking back, I’d guess that years of drinking too much alcohol and eating too much sugar had gradually compromised my ratio of good gut bacteria to the not-so-good. This set the stage for the antibiotics to come in and completely wipe out what little there was left of the good stuff, allowing Candida albicans to take over.
Candida is a yeast and like any other yeast, it feeds on sugar. I need to stress here that candida is in all of us, and is meant to be, it’s only when we have too much of it that it becomes a problem. My friend Josie used the analogy of a garden, where candida is a weed – dock or dandelion maybe – that exists on the periphery and goes about its business but doesn’t take over the cultivated plants, which are the whole reason the garden was created in the first place. The garden is filled with nutritious and delicious morsels just waiting to fill our tummies and to colonise our digestive systems with good gut flora. Everything is in balance. However, over time the garden gets neglected and the dock and dandelion start to infiltrate, sending their tap roots deep into the soil and taking hold.
So too with candida: if allowed to take over, its long branch-like structures can penetrate the gut wall and migrate to other parts of the body, including the brain. Molecules of food can also cross this barrier, which they’re not supposed to do – ever heard of leaky gut syndrome or irritable bowel syndrome?
Some of the symptoms I had when my candida was really bad included brain fog – I’d find myself staring vacantly into space, concentration and mental clarity were at an all-time low. My muscles and joints ached and my recovery after exercise took longer than normal. I also suffered from vertigo – things would be swirling and undulating around me, things that shouldn’t be moving at all, things like buildings and pavements. Chronic fatigue and sugar cravings were also happening.
It’s a tricky one because the symptoms I’ve just described could also be attributed to other things: a sleep-deprived parent could have brain fog, someone who doesn’t stretch or drink enough water could have aching joints and muscles, and anyone who’s addicted to sugar will crave it. I had an underlying sense that something wasn’t quite right with my health, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. It certainly wasn’t life threatening, but it was affecting the quality of my day-to-day life.
If you’re reading this and thinking that you too might have too much candida floating around your body, here’s a really simple test you can do. Very first thing in the morning, before having anything to eat or drink, or brushing your teeth, work some saliva into your mouth and spit it into a glass full of water. Leave it for at least half an hour then come back and have a look. If it’s still floating on top of the water, you’re in the clear. If there are tendrils of saliva dangling in the water, or if your saliva has sunk to the bottom of the glass, sorry but it’s not good news. The first time I did the spit test I didn’t have to wait half an hour for the verdict – my saliva immediately started drifting down through the water and within a minute or two it had all sunk to the bottom and looked white and powdery. Damn.
The only way to get your candida back in check is to starve it of sugar. Initially, I didn’t think there was all that much sugar in my diet, but when I had a closer look there was actually quite a lot. Lots of fruit, lots of honey, maple syrup, I added sugar to my coffee, I treated myself to dried fruit or lollies about once a week. It was certainly enough to feed the beast. One of the (many) annoying things about candida is that once you start starving it the symptoms actually get worse. The candida starts to die and as it does so it releases toxins, it really sucks. One of the symptoms of die-off is irrational anger, so be warned. Just add it to your arsenal of chronic fatigue, brain fog, and general aches and pains.
Going into this, a life without sugar seemed, to me, like a life that wasn’t worth living. I thought to myself “I’ll just do it until I get better, then I’ll go back to my old way of eating”. So that’s what I did. I was fastidiously healthy all week – no sugar, lots of cruciferous vegetables, sprouts, fermented foods, cider vinegar… Then the weekend would roll around and I wouldn’t be able to sustain it. I’d drink alcohol, which is a big no-no (candida loves it) then in the aftermath of the drinking I’d make poor food choices: chocolate, lollies, ice cream… All my good work was undone. So let me tell you, from personal experience, it won’t work if you only do it sometimes, it has to be 100 %, or you may as well not bother with it at all. Let me also tell you, the rewards are well worth the effort. Do you want to live a life where you feel a bit below average all of the time, or are you willing to deal with some potentially full-on shit in order to get to a really good place?
So, if you’re serious about getting your overgrown garden back in order, yes you have to pull out the weeds, but you also have to put the good stuff back in. Taking a probiotic supplement can definitely help, but take an enteric one so that the bacteria will be released into your intestines, not your stomach where your hydrochloric acid will destroy most of it. The brand I use is called Reuteri. You also want to eat lots of foods that naturally contain probiotics rather than just relying on a pill. Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) are your friends, as are fermented foods – sauerkraut really helped for me.
Eating all these alkalising vegetables will also help bring your pH back to where it should be. Sugar acidifies your body (as does coffee, alcohol, grains, dairy and meat) but your body really loves to be just slightly alkaline, and will draw alkalising minerals out of your bones if it has to, in order to keep things the way they’re meant to be. Your body will also hold onto fat and use it to insulate your cells from your blood, which will become increasingly acidic if you eat too much crap and not enough good stuff. I read about this in Dr Libby Weaver’s book The Real Food Chef.
For me, the journey to health is just that – it’s a journey not a destination (I know that this is a cliché but it’s so true!). I don’t think I’ll ever get to a place where I can say health has been achieved and then rest on my laurels because of all the work I put in way back when. It doesn’t work like that. A functional and bountiful garden requires constant maintenance; you can’t just pull the weeds out once and expect them never to return. Nor can you throw some seedlings in the ground and come back in a month or two expecting to find them flourishing. Is it worth the effort? Absolutely. Right, I’m off to eat some sauerkraut.