the simplest sourdough flatbread, and what probiotics and gut microbes have to do with it

“Why are you people always switching out sour cream for yogurt in all your recipes?”
This was the question I was asked a few weeks ago while teaching a (virtual) cooking store tour. The question had me pausing because it was so good and to be honest, I’m surprised no one has ever asked me before. I paused also because it’s been so many years since I’ve actually eaten sour cream – and years too since my yogurt-in-every-meal days.

So why do nutritionists and health-minded persons tend to switch out sour cream and add yogurt at every opportunity? Without jumping too deep into the science at first glance, I think we can look towards long histories of fermented foods in virtually all traditional ways of eating around the world. Our ancestors were fermenting foods in all sorts of ways for better health and as a way of food preservation. Yogurt products—whether they are dairy-based or non-dairy—all have the same culture of bacteria added, and as most of us have learned from countless yogurt advertisements, it’s good for gut health. Plain old sour cream, and other creamy dairy foods, can’t generally say the same.


Fiber Nourishes Your Gut – Prebiotics

What we’ve learned in the science and nutrition community over the last couple decades is that what we eat affects our gut bacteria. Our digestive system is home to trillions of beneficial bacteria, called the gut microbiota or microbiome. These bacteria live in an (ideally) symbiotic relationship with us. In the case of beneficial bacteria, they feed on the undigested part of the food, (fiber), that is passing through the large intestine by fermenting it into short chain fatty acids such as N-Butyrate. That’s a good thing.

When we eat fibrous plant-foods, we are essentially feeding many species of beneficial bacteria from the fiber that we ourselves cannot digest. And when we don’t eat the foods that beneficial bacteria need, we lose harmony and balance between beneficial and disruptive bacteria, and dysbiosis occurs. Often with all sorts of negative symptoms that we experience. This beneficial fiber-rich food is what we’ll often call ‘pre-biotics.’


A healthy gut microbiome can protect us against disease-causing bacteria because the good bacteria competes for space in the intestines, blocking the bad guys from establishing a strong community. Beneficial bacteria can also help us absorb otherwise non-absorbable nutrients like certain antioxidant polyphenols, produce some micronutrients like vitamin K, and provide needed fuel for the cells in the colon. Production of short chain fatty acids by bacteria in the intestine also plays an important role in the maintenance of the intestinal barrier. Butyrate, the short chain fatty acid I mentioned above, has been shown to be protective against colon cancer.

Whereas we don’t want an overgrown of bacteria in the small intestine, having ample beneficial bacteria in the colon is a hallmark for optimal health. Low beneficial bacteria can impact your protective mucus lining in the intestinal tract, which supports up to 70% of our immunity. The commonly used phrase “leaky gut” comes in here when the interplay between a low fiber diet, low beneficial bacteria count, and difficult to digest macromolecules poke holes in the cheesecloth-like fragility of the intestinal lining and then opens the way for the immune system to do its job –in overdrive – resulting in sensitivities, intolerances, and allergies to many foods. 


Fermented Foods and Probiotics

On the flip side of the prebiotic/fiber-rich food equation is a term we’ve all heard. Probiotics. That stuff that makes yogurt and other fermented and/or bacteria-containing foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, raw vinegar, raw honey, and (traditional) sourdough bread health-promoting. Probiotic-rich foods essentially mean we’re eating the beneficial bacteria rather than feeding the good bacteria we already have.

When to Supplement

Probiotic supplements, especially in high doses, are often extremely helpful for individuals with an autoimmune flare, food or environmental allergies, metabolic concerns, hormone imbalance, skin health, cognitive and/or mental health, long-term and/or frequent antibiotic use, and of course, any sort of symptom that’s related to negative digestion—which tends to be a precursor to many of the other health challenges. When we’re using probiotics that occur naturally in fermented foods, we’re trying to maintain the balance of beneficial bacteria in our system (not just our gut either, our skin and many other areas of the body also have a microbiome). But when we’ve been in a pattern of long-term distress, we often need a little help from more bacteria than we can ingest through food. So a supplement might be necessary—ideally one of a reputable brand and with strains and quantities of bacteria that are scientifically founded for the symptoms or imbalance.



Going back to that question I received about sour cream and yogurt. I don’t tend to push a lot of yogurt as a preferred probiotic food source. Many individuals don’t tolerate dairy at all and the dairy industry is sadly pretty corporate and non-supportive of small producers these days. If you tolerate dairy products, and can source from a small dairy producing yogurt from grass-fed cows, then yes, it can be healthful. And while non-dairy yogurts contain some bacteria cultures, they often don’t provide much else in the way of protein or micronutrients. Flavored varieties of all types of yogurt are problematic due to all the other added ingredients, such as fillers, gums, sweeteners, and preservatives. Instead, I definitely encourage choosing a range of all the bacteria-containing foods.

One of my favorites is whole-grain sourdough. If you need a home project this fall and winter, starting your own sourdough mother (and naming it), will be immensely rewarding. My sourdough mother’s name is Esmerelda. Even if you’re not a baker. The flatbread below has become one of my five-minute favorites as a bready lunch side when I’m short on pre-made options, and with just the mother, you never actually have to launch off into sourdough baking (but I certainly recommend it if you’re ready for a next step).

Enjoy!

Dysbiosis in the gut microbiome is one of the five primary categories of digestive imbalances I look for when working with individuals clinically. Often when we’re experiencing chronic GI distress, there will be imbalances in several categories, and we begin working on the areas that appear most pertinent. I previously shared about the nervous system’s role, and the immune system leading to inflammation and food reactions, and I’ll explain the other two categories of digestive imbalance in future articles.

And If you’re tired of dealing with your wonky GI, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

Simple Sourdough Flatbread, makes 1
This is the absolutely simplest flatbread made from the sourdough mother. It’s rich and delicious, tastes bready and substantial, and can be flavored in many ways beyond the simple (plain) way I’ve made it. For a few more ideas, see this video which was the original that clued me into this delicious bread idea. For a larger amount, just use more starter. If you do not have a sourdough starter, I made mine from Baking Magique’s instructions. Instead of a mix of buckwheat and brown rice flour, my starter is 100 percent buckwheat. It keeps feeding Esmerelda super simple that way.

70 grams / ~1/2 cup sourdough starter
a little oil for your pan

  • Heat a medium to large skillet over medium-high heat. Add a little oil of choice, such as olive or coconut oil.
  • Pour your measured sourdough starter directly onto the pan and with a rubber spatula, gently spread it out so it’s smooth. Cook for about 3-4 minutes; then flip and cook 3-4 minutes more. You might need to turn your pan down a little, as this bread is slightly thick and you want to make sure you cook it all the way through.
  • Remove from pan, and add to your meal. I often eat it as a side like naan, but sometimes use it as a base for random other toppings that I have on hand for a quick lunch.

Better than the Bakery GF/DF Blackberry Muffins

During my senior year of high school, my agricultural science class focused on business and economics principles, and in one unit on our future in the workforce, I did some business planning on starting a cake bakery. I don’t know if we were focusing on entrepreneurship specifically, or if I’ve always had a streak of planning to run my own business, but to my way of thinking, I was owning, managing, baking, selling, etc. The whole dang thing. Never mind that I was in agricultural class, not growing or milling wheat or other grains, or just using an example from the then business I had at the time of raising and selling club lambs. Nope. Instead I did an abrupt turn and planned for baking artistic cakes in my future.

To this day, I often joke that if the pay were better and other things didn’t work out, I’d be baking and handing over the goods to other happy people instead. Oh and starting a porridge and brunch restaurant. Which is where my love for baking muffins comes in. If you go ahead and browse the recipe section, you’ll see I’ve published more than a handful of muffin recipes over the years. Along with cake, muffins are one of my favorite baked foods to experiment with.

When it’s up to me, I often tend to go for the heavily spiced, oat-rich, morning glory-type muffins that are stuffed with ingredients like raisins, shredded zucchini or carrots, mashed pumpkin, or other fruit. But not everyone favors that kind of porridge reincarnation. William, for instance, is a plain vanilla cake / vanilla frosting person, and likewise prefers simple berry muffins without the frills and extra ingredients. Since he’s been stopping by a local bakery before work many mornings for exactly that type of muffin, we settled on me making him some that are a little more wholesome and he can grab and take instead.

That’s where these come in. These are blackberry muffins made from milling oats, buckwheat, and almonds in my spice / coffee grinder. But they can easily become blueberry or raspberry-flavored instead, and if you have more of the flours than I do, start with oat, buckwheat, and almond flours for one less step. Either way, they’re an early morning treat that stands up to the bakery muffins with more whole foods, and especially whole-grains and reduced sugar. A big win and less of the side effects of refined sugars and flours, etc.

Blackberry Muffins, makes 6

65 grams / ¾ cup gf-certified oatmeal
65 grams / a little less than 1/2 cup raw buckwheat groats
60 grams / ½ cup raw almonds
8 grams / 1 Tbs. arrowroot flour
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. sea salt
70 grams / 6 Tbs. organic cane sugar
25 grams / 2 Tbs. coconut oil
1 large egg or a vegan alternative (1 Tbs. ground flax mixed with 3 Tbs. water)
½ tsp. grated lemon zest, optional
1 tsp. lemon juice or apple cider vinegar
½ tsp. vanilla extract
170 grams / ¾ cup plain non-dairy yogurt (unsweetened coconut yogurt is best)
150 grams / 1 cup fresh or frozen blackberries

  1. Begin by weighing or measuring out the oats, buckwheat and almonds, and then finely grind them to a flour mixture in a spice / coffee grinder. Alternatively, if you already have light buckwheat flour, oat flour and almond meal, you can skip this step.
  2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and prepare a muffin pan by adding the paper liners, or lightly wipe the insides with oil and dust with flour. Set aside.
  3. In a small bowl, mix the flours, baking powder and soda, and salt. Then set it aside.
  4. In a medium bowl, mix the coconut oil and sugar with a spoon until light and fluffy. Then beat in the egg, lemon zest and juice, and vanilla.
  5. Add in about 1/3 of the flour mixture to the sugar and oil and stir. Then add in ¼ cup of yogurt. Stir in another third of flour and another ¼ cup of yogurt, and then add the rest of the flour and the final ¼ cup of yogurt. The batter should be slightly fluffy. Don’t overmix.
  6. Gently stir in the blackberries, and then evenly divide the batter into the six muffins cups.
  7. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool them slightly in the pan, before tipping out and eating

Carnival Belly, Running, and a Digestive Health Survey

Lately, William and I have been taking weekend adventure runs, meaning we’ve been getting out of town for a good part of the day to run somewhere new. Often this is followed by a picnic with a very runner-favorite spread: PB&J sandwiches, fruit, and tortilla chips. A couple weekends ago, the route I chose was based on being new and not far to drive, and as such it was on a course that’s designed more for mountain biking. After three miles of steady running upwards amidst the giant forest foxgloves and complete peace that is running away from civilization, we got to our summit and the single-track mountain biking descent. It started out as a really fun, fairly technical terrain with lots of creek rocks, tree roots, twisty trails and garden-gnome spotting. But there were also steady, heavy mountain biking moguls, making every bit of downhill come with nearly the same in little uphill rollers.

By about halfway through the downhill, I had this experiential memory of being on a carnival ride, and I was unsurprised to find my digestive system was feeling jostled in just the same way. By the end of the fourth and final mile of downhill, I realized I’d taken for granted that the norm for runners is to cruise and ‘wheee!’ downhill once the climbing is done. And I’d gladly take that steady climb over the tumbling in my lower GI and the muscle fatigue setting in from all those rollers.

My carnival belly largely went away for the day once I stopped running and had a meal, but it was mildly painful and upset for a day or two afterwards. Relatedly, this week our annual relay team has taken the very different challenge of racing the 2020 relay race virtually, and because this race coincides with the hottest stretches of heat year after year (and no different this year), I had that same mild carnival belly throughout the day yesterday after a hard race effort in the morning heat that was quickly becoming uncomfortable. Similarly to the week before, the discomfort was mostly gone again within a few hours.

So What’s With the Carnival Belly From Exercise, and in Running Particularly?

When we exercise, our body directs blood flow away from the gastrointestinal tract and to the working muscles. This reduction in blood flow, accompanied by an increased release of stress hormones during higher intensity or long exercise efforts, as well as the high impact of running (just visualize the internal organs being jostled up and down as we run), all combine to cause damage to the cheesecloth-thin lining to the gut, leading to all sorts of uncomfortable symptoms, as well as impaired digestion and absorption of food and drinks.

And yes, all of this is fairly normal in small amounts given the nature of doing long or hard exercise bouts. When we are dehydrated (a big topic in itself for another day) and/or exercise in the heat or to an extent that we have a high body temperature, we further reduce blood flow to the GI system, increasing stress hormone release, and develop a higher likelihood of digestive distress. But what might be a small amount of discomfort and upset sometimes should not lead to or be confused with frequently occurring and/or greater than mild GI symptoms.

Despite the serene views, this was taken at the point in the day when the sun was getting hot, the water bottle was running low, and my fun to need-to-be-done ratio was starting to tip directions.

What Can We Do For MILD GI upset?
Rather than grimace and bear it, there are many nutritional and training strategies we can do to minimize GI distress. Primary strategies include being properly hydrated in the 24 hours before / after exercising, especially in the summer heat, as well as training the gut. Just like other aspects of the body, we can train our gut to tolerate different types of foods, fuels, and amounts. Other helpful tactics include avoiding NSAIDS around exercise (as frequent use negatively impacts the gut), and eating and drinking smaller and more frequent amounts during exercise–this method alone helps alot with optimizing absorption and reducing upset.

But what about when that GI ‘offness’ or tummy upset isn’t just mild, and it continues long-term or occurs frequently?

That’s what I’d love to ask about today. Having chronic or frequent digestive symptoms including nausea, GI pain or cramping, reflux, lack of appetite (in general or after exercise), bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, loose stools with undigested food, or limited food choices due to reacting to many foods are all big warning signs, kind of like our body’s version of a flashing yellow or red light telling us to proceed with caution, or just plain stop and seek to understand what’s going on.

Rather than address any of those symptoms individually or all together, I’d actually first like to know how common those symptoms are–so I’ve created an anonymous survey for you to tell me about them.

If you’ve followed along here longer term, you’ll know I write about digestion a lot as it’s one of a few factors that finally pushed me into clinical nutrition, and it’s honestly my favorite nutrition topic to help others with–partly due to my own challenges over the years, but also because it can be complicated and I love a good challenge.

So if you’d please, fill out the quick survey for me and I’ll see if I can share about any of those flashing yellow or red symptoms that can cause us distress in or out of exercise in the coming weeks.

Best summer post-exercise treat / summer snacking — all the berries!

References:
Costa, R.J.S., Miall, A., Khoo, A., Rauch, C., Snipe, R.,…and Gibson, P. (2017). Gut Training: The Impact of two weeks repetitive gut-challenge during exercise on gastrointestinal status, glucose availability, fuel kinetics, and running performance.
Costa, R.J.S., Snipe, R., Kitic, C.M., and Gibson, P.R. (2017). Systematic Review: Exercise-induced gastrointestinal syndrome-implications for health and intestinal disease.
Snipe, R. (2018). Exertional heat stress-induced gastrointestinal perturbations: Prevention and management strategies.