We often get asked if sourdough is the healthiest bread for the gut microbiome?
One of our main focuses at The Sourdough School is baking bread that nourishes, with a particular focus on nurturing the positive microbes in the gut.
Our approach to baking has never been more relevant, especially as a study published in the past 24 hours has demonstrated that the composition of the gut microbiome affects the way our bodies respond to Covid. Interestingly, Tim Spector and the ZOE team’s PREDICT 1 study, also out this week, concurs that you can affect the balance of the positive bacteria in your gut through healthy food choices.
Our approach at the school is backed by years of research by Vanessa and the team and is about increasing diversity and eating symbiotically to help support the beneficial bacteria in the gut. Sourdough baking is a rhythm that can easily be fitted into our lives, but it also gives us time to incorporate other healthy lifestyle choices into our daily routine. This is a guide to help you do just that.
When you eat, you’re not just eating for yourself, but for the trillions of microbes in your gut as well. We are symbiotic. In recent years, we’ve really started to understand how this symbiotic relationship between ourselves and our gut microbes can affect our health. One of the things that amazed me when I started researching nutrition and digestibility of bread was the work of the Human Genome Project. I remember being excited by this because I wondered if genetics could be responsible for many of the digestive issues I was having at the time. We’ve since discovered that less than 20% of diseases are based on genetics. This means that 80% of diseases are determined by your lifestyle and your environment: they are the sum total of the day-to-day actions you take during your lifetime.
From this, I understood that the bread we eat every day is part of our health destiny. I wasn’t a victim of the genetics I was born with, but rather the victim of massive overuse of antibiotics. This discovery left me empowered to make the right lifestyle choices for my own health. These choices are everyday actions which build up over a lifetime to influence our health, the way we feel and the way we see the world. Ultimately, baking our own bread every day helps to put us in control of our own health destiny.
Sourdough is a part of the jigsaw puzzle. There are, of course, other factors that contribute towards looking after your gut bacteria. And while baking slow-fermented bread with wholegrain or diversity blends is good, simply eating sourdough is not enough. Alongside baking bread there are other things that we can do as part of our regular routine to maximise the health benefits of sourdough.
Use the baking schedule as an opportunity to get outside and exercise
I try to fit in some exercise every day. If you look at the Sourdough Schedule, you can see that there are opportunities to exercise. This could be while you’re waiting for your leaven to be ready or for your dough to prove during the bulk fermentation. Choose a form of exercise that you enjoy. It can be something very gentle, like a walk outside, or something more vigorous. The important thing is we know that people who exercise two or three times a week have more diverse gut bacteria than those who don’t. In addition, walking increases your rate of digestion, which means your digestive transit works faster, which is good for you.
Gather your ingredients from the garden
Another small activity which we encourage here at the School is getting outdoors and connecting with the soil. Again, we know that if you can get outside and grow some of your own vegetables or forage for ingredients this is beneficial. We know that gardening and, more generally, spending time in the countryside can be a positive step for increasing gut microbial diversity.
I realise that we need to be vigilant against COVID, but being overly hygienic can remove the natural microbiome on your skin. Like the gut microbiome, these microbes have evolved alongside us and are important in helping protect against skin disorders and infections. Here at The Sourdough School, we have developed our own gentle soap in collaboration with The Raw Soap Company. I think being too hygienic can kill off the beneficial microbes on your hands, so we don’t use antibacterial or antimicrobial detergents unless you have no alternative. Soap and water is preferable. There are studies which show that being exposed to a bit of dirt is actually good for us, rather than being a health risk.
Another thing you can do to help your gut microbiome is to keep regular mealtimes. We know that our bodies follow a circadian rhythm. There is benefit in maintaining regular mealtimes because the microbes in our gut seem to follow that same circadian rhythm. There is also some evidence that regular periods of fasting can beneficially shape the composition of your gut microbiome.
Adopt a dog
Yes, funny as it might sound, there is evidence that people who own a dog have a more diverse skin microbiome. There’s also a study suggesting that babies growing in homes with furry pets have a more robust microbiome than those who don’t.
And when you do get that dog, you can try baking these Chicken, Spelt & Watercress Sourdough Dog Biscuits for them.
Incorporate live bacteria
Perhaps the fastest way to bolster your gut bacteria is to take a probiotic supplement. Many supplements are unproven, so here at The Sourdough School we recommend Symprove, which is a water-based food supplement with live and active bacteria. Probiotics essentially help improve the landscape of the digestive tract. I tend to think of them as a temporary fix, because the majority of these probiotic bacteria can’t take up residence in the gut, which doesn’t have the right environment for them to thrive. But while they are in your gut, you can still benefit from them. In addition, there is a suggestion that the probiotic bacteria may have a prebiotic action, allowing your own gut microbes to thrive through feeding on them.
Although we don’t yet have a definitive answer as to exactly how each of these probiotic bacteria benefit the gut microbiome, we do know that many of them have a positive impact on health. Eating your sourdough accompanied by foods containing live bacteria is another way of including probiotics in your diet. Things like sauerkraut, kefir, cultured butter and yogurt are all easy to make and can be enjoyed with home-baked sourdough.
Make your bread mindfully
The last thing I recommend is to use your time making bread to be mindful and maintain a sense of calm. Get your fingers into the dough and pay attention to the sensations of the moment. There are many studies which link disruption to the gut microbiome with anxiety, but this effect can work both ways, and stress has been shown to create changes in the way the gut microbes function. We know that, for example, high levels of cortisol will reduce levels of Bifidobacterium. So, connect with your dough, take time to relax and focus on the moment.