I’m not sure anyone has escaped experiencing some form of stress or anxiety over the past few weeks. Social media has exploded with posts about people baking and many of us have turned to making bread: not just because it is our staple food, but because baking is calming. I’ve settled into a kind of routine, and aside from not being able to shop at the farmers market, the small things in life feel somehow more precious.
The whole subject of mental health and our gut microbiome has been central to my research over the past three years. I’ve specifically been looking into the impact of stress on the gut microbiome as part of my new book on sweet sourdough. The recipes are simple and nourishing, and each one has been created specifically to support both the gut and mental health. It never ceases to amaze me how effectively sourdough works, on so many different levels.
The way you feel
Everything we do, everything we say, every breath we take, boils down to one thing: the way we feel. It all centres around having a healthy mind. Mood, motivation, anxiety levels and cognitive abilities all have an effect on our physical wellbeing. Mental health is not separate from our physical health: our sleep patterns, appetite and digestion are all related to the way we feel mentally and emotionally. So, perhaps now is a good moment to dig deeper into why making sourdough has a greater impact on mental health than other forms of baking.
Losing yourself in the moment: baking as an organoleptic experience
Baking sourdough is an organoleptic experience: It involves the use of all your senses. The simple process of mixing flour and water, the act of getting your hands into the dough and the chance to be in the moment as you bake all have positive impacts, both physically and mentally. It’s about connection: to be a good baker and make the most beautiful sourdough, you need to lose yourself. To use your senses, your hands, your heart, and your mind. You need to create and connect to the dough: the smell of it, the texture and tension – even the sound is sensuous. We are told that meditation and mindfulness are effective ways to reduce stress, yet so many of us resist enforced mindfulness practice. Sourdough, when made well, is about being in the moment. Good bakers connect to the dough. Creating bread is a gentle, yet powerful, form of mindfulness.
We evolved with fermentation
Sourdough is a relationship: it is symbiotic, and it’s instinctive. We evolved with fermentation. We have a unique relationship with the wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria that create sourdough. Wild yeast is all around us, and lactic acid bacteria are found on our hands and in our digestive systems. Research has confirmed that the bacteria on our hands affect the species found in each sourdough starter and fermentation. This is transformative in several ways.
First, as the dough ferments, the acidification of the dough during fermentation triggers biochemical reactions. One of the reactions is that the proteolytic enzymes, which break down proteins such as gluten, increase. For many, this reduced gluten load makes sourdough easier to digest than other breads, and potentially less inflammatory for anyone sensitive to gluten. This is particularly important for anyone who has increased intestinal permeability (known as leaky gut).
Secondly, the acidification of the dough also triggers phytase enzymes. These enzymes act to reduce levels of phytic acid, which in turn increases the bioavailability of minerals in sourdough.
A third aspect is the increase in bioavailability of fibre, in particular polyphenols in the dough, and increased retention of vitamins, including B vitamins, which are key to mood.
We can further increase the levels of fibre in sourdough through careful selection of ingredients. This can help provide the body with the fibre essential for our beneficial gut microbes to produce increased levels of short-chain fatty acids, which have a protective effect in the gut. The loaves we develop and bake at the School, in particular our diversity loaves, are specifically designed to increase the diversity of nutrients available to these microbes, thus supporting gut health. And the more we learn, the more we understand how important it is to support the gut and these microbes. In terms of good mental health, we are learning that the gut makes serotonin as well as other key metabolites needed by the brain to function correctly. If the aspects of good health were a circle, the gut would be at its centre.
Alongside the physical act of mindfully creating sourdough bread, and the biochemical support it provides for our gut microbiome, there’s also a social element to bread baking. There’s a huge amount of joy to be had from pulling a handmade loaf out of the oven. There’s the smell of freshly baked bread and, of course, the fact that bread is the ideal food to share. It’s humble, inexpensive and something that can become part of the rhythm of life. It’s basic food, yet absolutely joyous to eat and share or maybe it is just that sometimes lowering stress is simply about doing something you really love.