Yet another IBS experiment: Fermented food overload

It is summer and life is busy here at Frugasaurus HQ. Most notably is the extra work associated with trying yet another experiment to try to alleviate Mr. Frugasaurus’ debilitating IBS.

When I first posted about starting this experiment on twitter, there were quite a few requests for updates along the way. I thought I would try to do one large update when we finished, but to be honest, the results so far as so staggering that I would like to share them with you after only the first few weeks.

Disclaimer: Please remember that neither Mr. Frugasaurus nor myself are medical professionals. This post is an account of our experience with IBS and what has helped/not helped us. People with IBS are very different, and what works for us might not work for you.

What is IBS

IBS stands for irritable bowel syndrome, and is one of those “dead end” diagnoses where the doctor can’t really figure out what’s wrong. It is usually accompanied by constipation or diarrhoea, bloatedness, gastrointestinal pain and an inability to hold it if you need to go number 2.

Reactions are often triggered after consuming something, and people affected can vary immensely. There are those who get pains and a reaction a few times a month or less, and there are those, like my husband, who got sick almost every day.

For as long as I have been with him, Mr. Frugasaurus has had some strict rules regarding eating. He never eats anything where he does not have access to a bathroom, and he needs to wait at least an hour after eating something before he leaves the safe space with a bathroom, just in case he has a reaction.

He also gets a reaction and pains if he goes too long without eating as well. So you can just imagine living your life largely in the few hours between 1 hour after you’ve eaten and preferably 1 hour before you need to eat again.

Funky, new food stalls or ice cream booths at the beach? If there is not a reasonably sanitary bathroom nearby, it is not going to happen. Picnics are out too.

Ditching FODMAP

The last experiment we tried related to trying to alleviate Mr. Frugasaurus’ IBS was low FODMAP. In short, that means trying to avoid anything the bacteria in your gut can eat, like complex fibers, to alleviate pain and bloatedness.

We tried following this way of eating for over a year, and the initial conclusion was that it alleviated pain and symptoms, but gradually Mr. Frugasaurus became more sensitive to the high FODMAP foods, where even a small amount could make him violently ill. One of the theories is that when you reduce high FODMAP items in your diet, your gastrointestinal system loses the “exercise” it previously got from it, and you grow increasingly sensitive over time.

Another problem with trying to eat low FODMAP was the social aspect of it.

Invited for dinner? Make sure to tell them Mr. Frugasaurus can’t eat onions, beans, cabbages, stone fruits, dried fruits, coffee…. the list goes on. Our friends are amazing and have been very good about this, but it becomes isolating even so. It also limited our diets severely and could lead to nutritional deficiencies even as we tried to eat healthily.

A new plan

Then, while visiting a friend, I came upon the book “Tarmens Medisin” (gut medicine, the link is Norwegian only I’m afraid) by Norwegian doctor Berit Nordstrand. Now, Nordstrand is a little guru-ish at the best of times, and both Mr. Frugasaurus and I are a little leery of gurus in general.

But she is also a medical professional and can argue her point with scientific studies and reasonable arguments. Her suggestions would also allow us to eat “anything” again. Or at least all fruit and veg, though processed foods were getting a hard no.

In essence: whole and fermented foods are in, processed and semi-processed foods are out.

How does it work?

The whole philosophy of the book is that a lot of pain and discomfort can be attributed to a gut that is out of balance. Bad gut bacteria dominate and the good bacteria can’t get a foothold. Your job as the host organism is to help good bacteria reestablish dominance.

How do you do that?

Nordstrand herself lists 6 distinct steps in her book, and they must be followed in order. It would just cause you more pain if you star eating lots of “fermentables” (vegetables with lots of fibre that we can’t use, but our gut bacteria loves) before you have reestablished the good bacteria as the dominant species in your gut (two big, large families of good bacteria are lactobacillus and bifidobacterium)

All the following steps are done for two weeks before tacking in the next. Then the last step is maintaining it. You don’t stop anything. The idea is that you just add more as you go along and then keep doing it.

1. Lots of fermented food

It is no large, impossible bowl we have been consuming daily.

Kimchi, kombucha, water kefir, sauerkraut, unpasteurized and real yogurt, fermented sauces. The list goes on and on. The point of the first step is to try to kickstart an unhealthy gut with a complete overload of fermented foods (which are full of good bacteria). Lots of these will die when they meet stomach acid, so you really need to overdo it.

We had kombucha and sauerkraut in the house already, so that’s what we tried when we decided to give this process a go. Mr. Frugasaurus quickly discovered that kombucha made him feel better, and he started having a glass with every meal, plus a small bowl of sauerkraut with dinner.

The easy thing here is to find at least one fermented food you like enough that you can consume it daily. That makes you less likely to forget, or wonder if you had your dose today.

Luckily for us, kombucha is all the rage these days, so it is very likely Mr. Frugasaurus can find it even when he is out and about.

2. Reduce carbs

This is the step we are currently at, and while the first was easy, this is much more alien to us. Will return with an update when we actually have the foggiest notion how and what to do, especially as we try to keep our intake of animal protein reasonably low.

3. Bone broth and whole animals

This was a bit of a surprise to us, but the argument is that a lot of the western world today largely eat pure muscle and ditch things like liver, kidney, skin and bone broth. The non-muscle part of the animal are typically the most nutrient dense (think about animals of prey who typically consume brain and bowels first).

Dr. Nordstrand was particularly adamant about skin and bone, which contains lots of gelatin, as something we typically don’t get enough of. Gelatin works as a lubricant for a lot of things, especially the gastrointestinal wall. So she argues that more nose to tail eating would provide us with a much healthier life overall.

4. More fermentable foods and antioxidants

This is where you do not just feed your gut good bacteria through fermented foods, but also eat more unfermented veg to feed your growing gut biota. The way I think about it is that instead of the big three (carbs, fat, protein), it makes more sense to think about the big four. The first three are for our own body, and the last (fibre) is for our gut bacteria. Complex fibre like cabbages are really good, so this goes completely contrary to the FODMAP way of thinking.

5. Soak grains, legumes, nuts and seeds

A lot of grains and seeds contain “anti-grazing” chemicals that can lead to bloatedness. By soaking and sprouting, nutrients are released and the anti-grazing compounds reduced.

6. Green tea, red vine, cocoa, coffee, unrefined sweets

This last step might as well have been called “all things in moderation”. This is where the Nordstrand recommends small amounts of antioxidant-rich foods we know are good for us, just not in excess.

Where are we now?

We just finished our two weeks of fermented food bonanza and are trying to get a hang of reducing our carbs (note that this is not traditional “low carb” or “no carb”, nor are we trying to achieve ketosis). We figure we will stay at this step until we feel we’ve got the hang of it.

My kombucha factory, bubbling away!

I hate to add substance to the hype, but we noticed a difference already on day one. Mr. Frugasaurus would start his day with a sip of kombucha, and in the beginning he would notice his system start to have a reaction if he started eating before having something fermented.

He still had some reactions, of course. This is not a miracle cure. But we could see clear correlations between the typical triggers (too little sleep the first time he had a serious reaction, and lots of travel/processed food the other time).

From being sick at least every other day, we could count on one hand the number of times he had a reaction those first two weeks. And of those, only two times went full blown serious reaction, and even they had clear causes. More than once, Mr. Frugasaurus could eat something, feel his system start to complain, and defuse the situation by drinking more kombucha.

We were, and still are, astounded. The other day he dared eat an ice cream cone with me in the sun because we were going straight home after. This has never happened before! He has more energy and doesn’t spend hours stuck in the bathroom every day.

Not there yet

While Mr. Frugasaurus’ system is better, it is by no means “restarted” or as stable as a person without IBS. We have noticed on days we are traveling or visiting friends that his system still relies on an intake of fermented foods. Even if we never manage to restart his system, which is a large theme of the book, this is still such a huge improvement. There is no doubt that we will keep making and stocking fermented foods because the difference cannot be exaggerated. His quality of life is much improved, and you can tell he is relaxing more, especially when we go out and he doesn’t have to tell people about all the things he cannot eat.

Now it’s more “t\Thanks for inviting us, I brought some kombucha, hope you don’t mind.”

How do you start?

If you think this sounds like worth having a go, I would suggest spending some time prepping before you dive head-first. We already had a reasonable amount of kombucha and sauerkraut in our house, but when we increased our intake so drastically, we ran out pretty fast. Instead of stopping the experiment that was going so well, we headed to our local ethical/superfood store and stocked up while our homebrew was ready for consumption.

In the frugal mindset of things – kombucha is expensive! Especially when you drink several glasses a day. So if you want to keep costs reasonable, spend at least a month or two stocking up on homemade kraut, kimchi, kombucha or other goodies (sauerkraut is just salt, cabbage, and a good jar, kombucha can be started from a bottle of organic, unfiltered and unpasteurized kombucha from a store, check that it has started growing a SCOBY on top or has some bottom sludge).

Here is a link to a basic kombucha recipe. Make sure you use unflavoured tea, preferably organic/free of pesticides. SCOBYs are healthier if you stay specific to either green or black tea, so know which one you have.

Homemade fermented foods take time to make but require very little maintenance. I mean, slice some cabbage, salt it, stuff it in jars and forget about it for a month? Or black tea, sugar, a SCOBY and time? I’ve heard of much more cumbersome recipes.

Store pickled foods are not fermented

You might think you can get away with store bought pickles and olives. But what you buy in a store typically has vinegar added, instead of letting the bacteria develop it. It is also, quite often pasteurized, sterilized, has antibacterial stuff added or has had the bacteria killed in some other way.

So I’m sorry, pickle lover that I am, but store bought pickles don’t count. Homemade is the cheapest and probably safest way to go.

Experiment

Experimental pirir piri sauce bubbling away on the counter. With “lid” of olive oil to prevent air from getting in.

Some people might be happy to eat a small bowl of sauerkraut every day, but if you’re one of those people who chafes at routine, know that there are lots of exiting fermented foods out there. A well as lots of variations to keep the flavour fresh. (Most of it is basically vegetables covered by salt water. As you can imagine, there is quite a lot of room for variation.)

While neither Mr. Frugasaurus nor myself (because why wouldn’t I try to improve my own health along with my husband?) mind the taste of sauerkraut, we are both curious critters and I take this as a ripe opportunity for some serious fermentation experimentation. I have been intimidated by kimchi for a while, but now is the time to dive in!

Regular sauerkraut with ginger, or ginger, garlic and chili is also divine. As is sauerkraut with turmeric, apple, carrots, ginger, and garlic. I need to make up a new batch yesterday. PS: red cabbage works just as well as white, and variation is good for everyone.

In theory, I imagine anything from the cabbage family would work, such as broccoli, cauliflower and Brussel sprouts, but I haven’t had a chance to test this yet.

Our most interesting experiment to date is trying, yet again, to recreate something that can be used as a piri piri sauce on hummus and other dishes (we are eating hummus again, woho!). Mr. Frugasaurus first got a taste for it in Nando’s while he was living in Ireland, and it is one of those things he misses.

So, with the mindset of “ferment everything” I found a recipe-ish online, headed off to buy lots of chillies and some sweet peppers, added some fresh garlic, lots of salt and some liquid from my fermented carrots and off it went.

I took off a small jar for Mr. Frugasaurus to enjoy while it bubbles away. And while I thought I had created death in a jar, it has almost vanished already.

The first part of this new experiment has gone beyond our wildest dreams.

13 Comments on “Yet another IBS experiment: Fermented food overload

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this! I’ve seen mentions of the benefits of whole animal, fermented foods, kombucha, and the focus on fixing the gut, not just for IBS but for inflammation and some other chronic conditions. We haven’t changed our diet around as much, but we are cooking more, eating less processed food, eating more fresh produce, and it has made a difference. I also do intermittent fasting (eating only between 6-8 hours each day), and I have found this helpful and easy to follow.

    • Thank you! Yes, we have been trying to eat whole foods for a while, but were missing the fermented bit and it is definitely making a difference. Glad you have found something that works for you too!

  2. That’s so cool that he’s having good success with fermented foods, and right away, too! There’s a Korean grocery right by our house that has a bunch of cool kimchi that I always want to try. Maybe I’ll give it a try now.

    And bummer about store bought pickles because they are my favorite snack. Maybe I’ll just have to start pickling to give it a shot.

    • We just tried our first batch so I know what I am trying to replicate, and it’s good! We found one that was mild enough for our palate, and it has all sorts of exciting flavors beyond “just” the tangy vinegar of fermentation. 😀

      Another pickle lover here – will have to try once I manage to grow some cucumbers!

  3. Thank you for posting this! I suffer from IBS, and it has really had a negative influence on my life.

    I am going to start making fermented foods, and buying them in the meantime.

    • Good luck! I hope it has some positive effects on you too! 🙂

  4. Wow, this is brilliant! So good that fermented foods have had such a positive impact on Mr F’s IBS.

    I have a friend who suffers from IBS and she tried the FODMAP diet.
    She found it helped, but it was very limiting in relation to eating out and socialising , which chimes in with your experience (really, SO many dishes have onion as a base!).

    • Yes, FODMAP restricts things a lot – and there are so many different things to remember that makes it challenging to try new dishes.

      I am so happy I can make traditional nut roasts again!

  5. I don’t know much about IBS, and after reading what Mr F’s life has been like up till now, I can say THANK GOODNESS that I don’t know much about it. It sounds awful!
    I hope that this is the new beginning that it seems to be.

    • Yeah, it can be pretty debilitating. Here’s to hoping this will help in the long run!

  6. I grew a Kombucha 2 decades ago as a teenager and I must say, I greatly preferred the taste of the “water kefir” which I was also growing (in lemon water if I recall correctly, water kefir is a colorless grain like substance, it is not kefir in water). However, I found that the Kombucha taste greatly increases if I used one part dried peppermint leaves and 2 parts of black tea instead of black tea only. Be careful with the Kombucha on top of your liquid. Mine sealed the top completely, built up pressure in the liqid and cracked my mother’s stoneware fermenting pots.

    • We have water kefir too! The taste is great, but I tend to forget things I need to babysit every other day after a certain amount of time. Might have to try the peppermint tip!

      I’ve never had the problem you describe with the fermentation jar. Air seems to escape past the SCOBY without issue, but something to look out for none the less. 🙂

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