Saturday, 3 September 2016

September 2016: forgetfulness or Alzheimer's?


“Can’t remember: I must be getting Alzheimer’s” people say, nowadays, if they’re not as young as they were. 
And I sigh. Nine out of ten times, they aren’t, and the worry is not doing them any good. In fact, noone who ever said this to me, seemed anything but just forgetful. Or: very forgetful. More or less the same as me.
Alzheimer’s [1] is different. As you'll see from the following.

If you:
forget a name, word, or experience, and remember it later;
forget, but being reminded works;
effectively use tools to help you remember: notes, a calendar; 
can retrieve something which you forgot several times before;
have memory problems due to stress, fatigue, or overdoing;
keep your usual personality and behaviour;
can still look after yourself and perform basic needs like bathing, dressing, eating;

However, if someone:
has trouble performing normal tasks;
forgets how to do things they’ve done lots of times;
gets lost or disoriented in familiar places;
repeats stories within the same conversation;
can’t make choices, shows poor judgment;
can’t follow directions;
behaves in socially inappropriate ways:
they may be heading in the wrong direction.

Alzheimer’s develops due to a whole complex of factors, some of which can’t be helped. But there are plenty of ways in which you can influence the outcome. 
* Regular exercise: at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week; balance and coordination exercises (like yoga, tai chi). 
* Healthy diet: less sugar; more fruits, veg [2], and whole grains; avoid trans fats and refined foods.
* Mental stimulation: learn something new, do puzzles or games, read.
* Quality sleep: see insomnia Thought April 2015 (click on 2016).
* Stress management: laugh! And see Thought July 2014 (click on 2016).
* An active social life: volunteer, join a club, phone, get out, get to know your neighbours.
* Stop smoking; watch your weight; control your blood pressure, don’t drink too much.
* In general, what’s good for your heart also benefits the health of your brain.
See [3].

There is a lot of confusion about the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia - even doctors sometimes use the terms interchangeably. Alzheimer's is a type of dementia. Dementia is a general symptom and can also be caused by other disorders [4].  

Are only girls supposed to eat grapefruits these days? Why else are they all pink? Or is something more sinister behind this? See the New Scientist article 'BITTER TRUTH', under September on the right hand side of this page. 

Veg: broad/runner/french beans, marrow, squash, courgette, lettuce, turnip, peas/mangetout, aubergine, capsicum, spinach (beet), chard, sweetcorn, shallots, tomatoes, cauli, carrots, cabbage, beet, globe artichoke, cucumber, fennel, radish, kohlrabi, calabrese, chicory, endive, celery, broccoli, swede.
FishMackerel, sea bass, black bream, crab, mussels, scallops.
Meat: rabbit, lamb, wood pigeon, duck, goose, grouse, partridge, venison.

spring cabbage, spinach, turnips, oriental vegetables, landcress, rocket, corn salad, winter lettuce, winter purslane. Plant overwintering onion sets, garlic.


225g beans, olive oil, 1 small chopped onion, 180ml apple cider, salt, pepper.
Cook beans till just done. Sauté onion in oil and stir till it starts to caramellize. Heat small pan over medium-low heat. Add cider, raise heat a bit and cook until the liquid is reduced and syrupy, about 5 mins. Season beans and add to onion mix, stir.

4x175g pollock or whiting fillets, 4 small or 1 large kohlrabi, 2 chopped onions, 3 minced garlic cloves, some tomatoes or tomato puree, thyme, basil, 4 tblsp olive oil, seasoning. 
Sauté onion and garlic in half the oil. Add tomatoes and thyme, cook for 10 mins, stir occasionally till the sauce thickens. Add chopped basil, salt, pepper. Remove thyme. Peel kohlrabi, slice thinly. Cook in salted water 10-15 mins. Fry fish in the rest of the oil till done. Put on each plate: kohlrabi, fish, top with sauce.

For more recipes, see former September issues: click on 2016 at the right hand side of this page. 



how we’re making fruit and veg less healthy by Marta Zaraska

In an effort to cater to our sweet tooth, food producers are making fruit and veg taste less bitter. The trouble is, that's making them worse for us

WHERE have all the white grapefruit gone? When I was a kid, they were almost the only kind around, but today white grapefruit are hard to find in my local shops, often replaced by sweeter pink or red varieties.
I’m not imagining it. Thirty years ago, Florida, the grapefruit capital of North America, produced 27 million boxes of white and 23 million boxes of the coloured varieties. Today, they ship more than twice as many red and pink grapefruit as they do whites ones. And it turns out grapefruit is a bellwether of a more insidious trend. It affects much of the fresh produce aisle, from cauliflower to potatoes, tomatoes and juices. Our fruit and vegetables are becoming less bitter.
On the face of it, reducing bitterness in foods sounds like a great idea. Wouldn’t it be nice if broccoli were always mild and sweet? Supermarkets are already advertising milder Brussels sprouts as “kid friendly”. But there is a catch. The same chemicals that make fruit and veg bitter also imbue them with many of their health benefits. When scientists talk about the healthiness of green tea, dark chocolate, red wine or broccoli, much of what they are talking about is due to bitter chemicals called phytonutrients.

To satisfy our love of sweetness, food manufacturers are now removing many of these substances, causing some people to worry that we are turning bitter fruit and veg into the junk foods of the fresh produce aisle. “Eating fruits and vegetables without phytochemicals would in many ways be analogous to drinking the empty calories of a can of soda,” says Jed Fahey a molecular scientist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. “Yes, you could survive on de-bittered fruits and vegetables, and they would help maintain life, but not good health.” So if our preference for sweet over bitter is prompting the food industry to strip some foods of the very chemicals that make them good for us, what’s to be done? And how can we train our taste buds to better enjoy bitter?
It makes sense that as consumers we favour sweet ingredients – we have evolved to do so. Sweet foods hold the promise of a ready supply of energy. Salty food contains sodium, necessary for our bodies to function properly. Bitter, on the other hand, suggests toxicity, which is why our natural reaction is to want to spit it out. Bitter phytonutrients act as a natural pesticide, protecting plants against all kinds of enemies, from bacteria to insects and cows. Thousands of these nutrients have been identified so far, giving the bitter tang to familiar foodstuffs such as Brussels sprouts and coffee.
But despite phytonutrients being toxic in large doses, a growing body of evidence suggests that small doses can confer a host of health benefits. The elusive white grapefruit is a prime example. Its most prominent phytonutrient is ultra-bitter naringin, which turns out to have anti-ulcer and anti-inflammatory properties. Naringin can also inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells, and induces cervical cancer cells to commit suicide. The sweeter pink and red varieties have substantially less of the stuff.
The mechanism at work is known as hormesis – simply put, it’s the idea that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
“The reason bitter phytonutrients are cancer preventing is that they can destroy cells. They are healthy because they are toxic,” says Adam Drewnowski, an epidemiologist who studies nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle. One study, for example, found that eating a diet rich in quercetin, found in green tea, broccoli and red wine, might help protect against lung cancer, especially in heavy smokers.

Sweet tooth
And the list of phytonutrients thought to have anticancer properties is growing. It now includes sinigrin – one of a group called glucosinolates, which give the bitter edge to Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage and kale (see graphic). There’s also genistein in soya beans, sulforaphane in broccoli, plus potatoes have solanine and tomatoes have tomatine.
Further explanation of the health benefits of phytonutrients may be their antioxidant properties. Antioxidant supplements have come under some scrutiny in recent years. But the thinking is that when eaten as whole foods, rather than supplements, the phytonutrients in bitter fruit and veg trigger our internal antioxidant system to kick in. “These compounds can activate the expression of antioxidant genes that do have the ability to remove oxidants and other potentially toxic compounds,” says Henry Jay Forman of the University of Southern California.
A dose of the bitter stuff seems to have benefits for heart health, too. Phytonutrients in cocoa, coffee or berries can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease – and not only due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They also help to prevent the build-up of plaque in the arteries.
Even so, we evolved to recoil at the taste of substances that might poison us, rather than favour them for any benefits relating to cancer or heart disease, which usually affect us after we have reproduced. This aversion to bitterness is especially strong in around a third of us. “Because they are bitter, for years we have been removing phytonutrients from the food supply,” says Drewnowski.
As a result, what we eat today is noticeably less bitter than the food our parents and grandparents ate even a few decades ago, says Peter van der Toorn, who leads the vegetable breeding division of Syngenta in the Netherlands. Brussels sprouts are a good example. “We still have bitter sprouts on the market, but the majority of what’s introduced these days is milder.”

Downgraded drinks
One way growers do it is to breed the offending compounds out. In fact, humans have been doing this since the dawn of agriculture. Take tomatoes, a fruit many of us wouldn’t even think of as bitter today. One wild species indigenous to Peru can contain 166 times as much bitter tomatine as the mild varieties we normally find on supermarket shelves.
When breeding and growing conditions are not enough, manufacturers can also sometimes remove bitter compounds later on, instead. They call this process de-bittering.
Citrus juices, for example, naturally contain high amounts of phytonutrients such as limonin, naringin or naringenin. “Most juice manufacturers make a concerted effort to limit bitterness,” says Russell Rouseff, a food chemist at the University of Florida. One method involves passing the juice through a bead-like resin that filters out bitter molecules. This can reduce the amount of naringin in grapefruit juice by as much as 64.5 per cent. Surprisingly, home-made freshly squeezed orange juice contains on average fewer healthy phytonutrients than do commercial freshly squeezed juices. That’s because these producers scrape out more phytonutrient-rich peel oils into the drink.
The more we learn about the role of bitter in our diets, the further the effects seem to reach. Drinking cocoa high in flavanols over a period of four weeks has been shown to significantly increase the presence of bacteria in the gut that boost digestion and immune function. These benefits weren’t seen with “dutched” cocoa, which has had the flavanols removed.
Some de-bittering processes are stripping our food not only of the health benefits bestowed by phytonutrients, but also essential vitamins. What’s more, skimping on bitter could have unwanted effects on our waistlines. “Bitter receptors, which are amazingly spread along the gastrointestinal tract and not only on the tongue, are now known to play a pivotal role in many gastrointestinal mechanisms, such as appetite regulation,” says Daniele Del Rio at the University of Parma in Italy. “Therefore, getting rid of bitter compounds, besides depriving our body of potentially protective phytonutrients, is also impairing our capacity to regulate food intake.”
Many scientists working in the field believe that the food industry has a responsibility to make sure that phytonutrients are preserved in our food supply. It would be better for our overall health if we stopped de-bittering our juices and growing increasingly less-bitter vegetables, Fahey says. This would also help safeguard the genetic diversity of our fruit and veg, which is being lost “at an astonishing rate”.
Such a message isn’t always welcome. Some of those working in the food industry argue that they are simply responding to customer needs.
Yet, as consumers become more interested in the health benefits of bitter phytonutrients, the industry is starting to offer foods enriched with these compounds. Beneforte broccoli, for instance, is bred in the UK for its high content of cancer-fighting sulforaphane.
You could argue that a trend towards milder, sweeter produce is beneficial if it means people eat more fruit and vegetables. “If someone who normally only eats fresh fruit or veg once every three days now eats one a day, because of the less bitter taste, would that be a desirable outcome? I suspect that it might,” says Fahey. That’s especially true of children, who generally have a particularly strong aversion to bitter foods.
Still, this approach is not ideal. “Broccoli, for example, will have a number of things that are good for health: low energy density, fibre, vitamin C. But it also has a number of antioxidant phytonutrients, and if those are bred out, the health function of broccoli will diminish,” Drewnowski says.
So it would be even better to find ways to learn to love bitter food a little bit more. One approach is to start young – as with babies fed hydrolysed casein baby formula, a substance so potent that many adults vomit after trying it. Babies who are allergic to cow’s milk are given this formula, and it’s healthy but bitter. “This stuff is absolutely awful,” says Gary Beauchamp from Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “But if babies are fed it early in life, they don’t mind it, and they will like bitter for the rest of their lives.” That’s been borne out in research showing that kids fed the casein formula at a young age enjoy broccoli more as toddlers than those who grew up on regular, sweet milk formulas.

Acquired taste
With a bit of persistence older children will take to bitter, too, according to research that shows they have to be offered a new food 10 to 15 times before they start liking it. “The child doesn’t even have to eat the food. Repeated exposure is all parents need to do,” says psychologist Gemma Witcomb, who studies children’s eating habits at Loughborough University in the UK.
“Children need to be offered a new food 10 to 15 times before they start liking it”
Adults, too, can change their ways, not least because an affinity for bitter is partly cultural. The first sip of coffee or beer for most people is lip-curling, but many of us learn to love them because their bitterness is paired with a desirable hit: caffeine or alcohol.
A similar approach could help make more virtuous bitter foods more palatable too, thanks to something called flavour-flavour learning – pairing something you don’t like with something you do like. Both children and adults who drank grapefruit juice mixed with sugar, and ate broccoli with sugar sprinkled on top, learned to like the bitter foods, even without the sugar. And there are ways to cook food to balance out or compliment the bitter tastes.

This goes to show that with a bit of effort we can all change our approach to bitter food. As for sourcing the right ingredients, keep an eye out for heritage varieties, with all their healthy bitterness. But more than anything, just let your taste buds guide you. Whether you learn to like the non-dutched cocoa full of flavanols, or come to seek out white grapefruit that’s stuffed with naringin – the more bitter the better.

September 2015: antibiotics


We keep hearing a lot about antibiotics. How they are overprescribed. How they deplete the good bacteria in your gut.
But what are the alternatives? And, if you haven’t been able to avoid them, how to follow them up so your intestines recover?

Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections, certain fungal infections and some kinds of parasites. If antibiotics are used too often for things they can’t treat—like colds or viruses—they stop working effectively against bacteria when you really need them.
For viral infections they are worthless. On the contrary, antibiotics can make colds worse by killing beneficial bacteria and creating an environment more favourable to the cold virus. 
Overuse of antibiotics, too, is one of the factors that contributes towards the growing number of bacterial infections which are becoming resistant to antibacterial medications. [1, 2]

If you really want to avoid unnecessary antibiotics, you also have to be careful when choosing your meat. Use of them in the farming industry is rampant: about half of all Europe’s antibiotics are given to livestock, 350 tonnes a year in Britain alone. Between ⅓ and ½ of antibiotic resistance in human infections originates from agriculture. [3]

See also

What are the alternatives? Garlic, onions, cinnamon, ginger, raw honey, probiotics, echinacea and fruit and veg in general are all natural antibiotics. See  

And if you can’t avoid them, make sure you eat plain natural yoghurt, garlic, onions, raw honey, cabbage or any fermented foods during and after, to repair your intestines. See

For more extensive background info, see also the article in our archives for September 2014 (at the right hand side of this page, click on 2016 > September), taken from the New Scientist: "Microbe City".


And also: a new campaign hopes to persuade doctors from carrying out unnecessary – or even harmful – procedures and tests. See here what you should watch out for: Five Things doctors Do They Shouldn't.


Oyez oyez - last minute news: 
The Somerset Waste Partnership has started a new volunteering scheme to help others, reduce food waste and save money. See


Veg: broad/runner/french beans, marrow, squash, courgette, lettuce, turnip, peas/mangetout, aubergine, capsicum, spinach (beet), chard, sweetcorn, shallots, tomatoes, cauli, carrots, cabbage, beet, globe artichoke, cucumber, fennel, radish, kohlrabi, calabrese, chicory, endive, celery, broccoli, swede.
FishMackerel, seabass, black bream, crab, mussels, scallops.
Meat: rabbit, lamb, wood pigeon, duck, goose, grouse, partridge, venison.

spring cabbage, spinach, turnips, oriental vegetables, landcress, rocket, corn salad, winter lettuce, winter purslane. Plant overwintering onion sets, garlic.


Large courgette or some small ones, butter, olive oil, garlic, crème fraîche, mature grated cheese (white wine, tomatoes, onion, thyme)
Thinly slice courgette and onion, fry in butter and oil. Add crushed garlic, (thyme), fry a little more, add wine and tomatoes/puree, let reduce a little. Add crème at the last minute, just heat through. Finish with the cheese.
You’ll find more recipes for your glut of courgettes at It takes a while to download, at least on my computer!  

Green cabbage; red cabbage, cooking apple, onion, butter, bay leaves, and spices like caraway, ginger or the like.
Cook the green cabbage with some caraway seeds. Cook the red cabbage in a different pan with sliced onion and bay. Add the chopped apple to the red cabbage halfway through the cooking proces. 
When they are both done, mix together but not too forcefully: you should still be able to recognize the two cabbage types by their colour. Stir in some butter. Pretty - and very nice with 
any kind of meat.

Scallops, sour cream, spring onions, olive oil, butter, flour
Coat scallops in flour,. Chop spring onions, including the green parts. Heat oil and butter almost to smoking point. Stir in onions, sauté 30-40 secs till they smell good. Keep the heat high, add the scallops, brown them on all sides by constant agitation of the pan. When slightly browned, add 2 heaped tblsp sour cream, stir with a wooden spoon the until scallops are well coated. Serve over steamed rice/noodles or any other grain. 3-4 minutes total cooking time no longer!!

Though kohlrabi is at its most magnificent in soups or mash (with plenty of cream!), here is a recipe for
Serve as an appetizer, or several as a light meal with a salad. Top with crème fraîche for instance.
200g cleaned kohlrabi, 1 egg, 2 tblsp flour, ¼ tsp fine sea salt, oil, any herbs/spices you fancy. 
Peel kohlrabi well: the peel is tough and fibrous. Grate on the large holes of the grater. Put onto a clean kitchen towel, twist and squeeze out as much liquid as you can. Crack the egg and beat, combine with kohlrabi. Add flour and salt, stir. Heat a generous layer of oil: batter dropped into the pan should sizzle immediately. Put spoonfuls of this in, flatten. Partially cover, and cook until browned on one side. Turn over, do the same for the other side. When completely tender, put on a towel to drain, fry the rest and serve.

1 chopped cabbage, 100g softened cream cheese, 2-3 tblsp milk, 1 tsp celery or caraway seed, salt, pepper.
Cook the cabbage until it starts to soften, drain well. Mix cream cheese, milk and seasoning. Stir this mix into the cabbage, serve hot.

3 ways of preparing PIGEON BREASTS:
I prefer my meat falling apart. And with a bit of fat! So pigeon breasts are not my cup of tea, but Mike liked them: 
1) Cut into thin strips. Soak in soy sauce, ginger, garlic, spring onions for couple of hours - even a bit of sherry? Flash fry; serve with noodles and stir fried veg.
2) Soak in olive oil, rosemary, crushed garlic, lemon juice, onions and salt overnight and then take them out and fry.
3) Shallow fry in olive oil with a bit of seasoning.

4 (150g) pollock* fillets 1.25cm thick, 3 tbsp lemon juice, 1 tbsp olive oil, 3 tbsp butter, 4 minced garlic cloves, 2 tbsp chopped parsley
Drizzle fish with 2 tbsp lemon juice, season. Heat oil, add butter to melt. Add garlic; cook and stir for 1 min. only. Add fillets: cook covered, 3-4 mins per side or until they flake easily. Transfer to a plate. Stir the remaining tbsp lemon juice into the pan, drizzle over fillets. Sprinkle with parsley.
*or whiting, coley, dab or any firm white fish. Or the unsustainable cod if you must! 


Broccoli for 4, chopped into florets and small stems; 2-3 chopped garlic cloves, olive oil.
Sauce: 240ml coconut milk, 2.5 tbsp peanut butter, 1/2 tsp sea salt, 1/2 tsp nice vinegar, 1/2 tsp turmeric, 1 pinch cayenne pepper
Carefully sauté garlic in oil for 30 seconds until fragrant. Add broccoli and turn up the heat a bit. Sauté for 3-5 mins until the broccoli is bright green and browning in spots. If you like your greens soft, add some water, put a lid on and cook longer.
For the sauce, put the ingredients in a small pan. Whisk together until thick and bubbly. Spoon over the broccoli - and rice if desired. Or stir in, if serving with noodles.

September 2014: Traditional Chinese Medicine



“The whole art of the true physician is exerted to induce nature to interfere and take up the case of his patient; and when he sees signs of her gracious presence, he only reverentially looks on, and confines himself to removing impediments in her way.”
Dr. James Esdaile (1808-1859)

Half a year ago I started to have kidney trouble. I did not really want to use antibiotics [1], and as my problems were not too severe I went for the food approach. I spent hours to find out every single detail of 'kidney infection' and 'kidney disease', but my ever more rigorous adherence to the prescribed diet yielded no progress.
Till my acupuncturist's throwaway comment that the kidney was 'yang deficient', sent me to the computer with new vigour. A 'yang deficient kidney' was an altogether different story, with a new exciting diet. Which worked straight from the start!
This is not a recommendation to avoid your doctor, or to dismiss their advise. But for me it opened a new world, and I have been exploring it gratefully ever since.

While most forms of traditional medicine have become extinct, traditional Chinese medicine continues as a separate branch of modern medical practice. Within China, it is an important part of the public health care system, and shows no signs of disappearing.
Traditional Chinese Medicine, based on thousands of years of empirical knowledge, believes that:
- the human body is a miniature version of the larger, surrounding universe.
- harmony between two complementary forces, called yin and yang, supports health, and disease results from an imbalance between these forces.
- qi, a vital energy that flows through the body, performs multiple functions in maintaining health.

Man, as an integral part of nature, is in constant and intensive interaction with his environment. This relationship is considered vital: disease is a deviation from natural conditions. Well-balanced bodies can usually handle most everyday bacteria and virus, which are ubiquitous and fast changing; disease happens only if there is an imbalance in the body.

The downside of western drugs is that they kill not only the bad bacteria and virus, they also severely intervene in our body's proper functioning. This worsens the unbalanced human internal system and makes patients more susceptible to other types of dis-ease.
The Chinese view is that western medicine pays too much attention to lab reports and too little to the overall feelings of the patient. And many of us with experience of western doctors, will agree with that! [2]


Do you still use tablesalt? Invest in some (fine grain) seasalt: it will last for ages and is far better for you. See the October 2010 issue.

Veg: broad/runner/french beans, marrow, squash, courgette, lettuce, turnip, peas/mangetout, aubergine, capsicum, spinach (beet), chard, sweetcorn, shallots, tomatoes, cauli, carrots, cabbage, beet, globe artichoke, cucumber, fennel, radish, kohlrabi, calabrese, chicory, endive, celery, broccoli, swede.
Fish: Threat to our wildlife, delight on your plate: "Why We Should Eat More (American Signal) Crayfish", [3]. Otherwise mackerel, seabass, black bream, crab, mussels, scallops.
Meat: rabbit, lamb, wood pigeon, duck, goose, grouse, partridge, venison.

spring cabbage, spinach, turnips, oriental vegetables, landcress, rocket, corn salad, winter lettuce, winter purslane. Plant overwintering onion sets, garlic.

1200g cleaned marrow, 2 carrots, 2 potatoes, 2 onions, (few lettuce leaves), 1/2 tsp mild curry powder.
Prepare all the veg and put them in 2l boiling water or stock with the curry powder (and thyme, bay). Cook till done, mash. Good with croutons.

I always make this when we have a glut of runner beans. It's simple:
Cook spinach (or use leftovers). Cook runner beans (or use leftovers). If you have something else leftover, like potatoes, throw it in! Keep cooking water. Add this water and/or stock, whizz with a whizzer. Season. Nutmeg, coriander, cayenne pepper are all good. Add sour cream. Serve!

450g French beans, 125g chopped mushrooms, 3 tsp chopped fresh parsley, 1 tblsp softened butter, 2 chopped garlic cloves.
Mix first 4 ingredients, add pepper. Cook beans, mix in mushroom butter, just heat through.

Zest of 1 lemon, 4 tbsp olive oil, 1 kg scrag end, 1 chopped onion, celery, 4 tsp tomato purée, can chopped tomatoes, 1l water, 400g quartered potatoes, 1 bay, 2 tbsp chopped dill, 300g sliced runner beans, 4 tbsp chopped parsley.
Rub zest and 2 tblsp oil over lamb. Let marinate for at least 1 hr, pref overnight. Heat oil in pan large enough to hold lamb and potatoes. Once hot, brown lamb in batches, set aside.
Add onion and celery, cook until soft, add tomato puree. Cook for another min., add tomatoes and water. Bring to boil and season. Return lamb to pan, add bay. Cover and simmer for 1 hr. Add potatoes and simmer for 20 mins uncovered, before adding dill, beans and half the parsley. Simmer for 15 mins until beans and potatoes are tender. Sprinkle with parsley. This dish tastes even better the day after.

1200g (floury) potatoes, 500g chopped apples ideally half sweet and half sour, 10-12 slices smoked bacon, butter or fat for frying,  2 onions, salt, large bunch of watercress, chopped without the thicker stalks.
Chop potatoes and put on with cold lightly salted water. After ab. 10 minutes add most of the apples. Meanwhile fry bacon with chopped onion and the rest of the apples. When potatoes and apples are done, mash. Cut up bacon, and add bacon/onion/apple mix to the mash along with the frying fat. At the last minute mix in the cress, or strew over it when served on the plates.

350g fresh white crab meat, 2 tsp lemon juice, 4 tsp extra-virgin olive oil plus extra for drizzling, 8 shredded basil leaves, handful sliced rocket leaves, sea salt, pepper.
Mix crab, lemon juice, oil, basil and seasoning. Make 4 piles of this on so many plates/ Put small pile of rocket next to them. Drizzle more oil over the rocket. Sprinkle with sea salt and cracked black pepper.

1 small marrow, 250g chopped mushrooms, 80ml butter, 1 chopped onion, 2 bay leaves, 1 tsp cumin seeds, 80ml plain yoghurt, 2 chopped tomatoes, salt, 1tsp curry powder, 1tblsp chopped green coriander or some ground coriander seeds.
Grind into paste: 1 onion, 2 cloves garlic, 1 tsp turmeric powder, 1 tsp red chili powder, 2.5cm fresh ginger
Peel marrow, take out pips. Cook in some salted boiling water for 5 mins. Drain, chop in 2cm pieces. Heat butter, fry onion, mushrooms and bay until golden. Add cumin and paste and fry for 10 more mins. Add yoghurt, tomato, salt and marrow, stir well. Cover tightly and cook on low heat for 15 mins. Serve hot, sprinkled with coriander.

[1] "Nothing hits gut populations like antibiotics" see "How to be a good mayor of your body's microbe city" by Jop de Vrieze, see archive, on the right, September, 'Microbe City'.
[2] For a simple introduction of Chinese medicine, see:
A very good one about Chinese medicine and food is
A more extensive overview is at:

Next month: The Common Cold!

[1] "Microbe City"


When Jop de Vrieze met the bacteria that call him home, he set out to learn how to keep them happy and himself healthy

THERE they are: my microbes. I feel like someone who's just been introduced to a group of lost relatives. Staring through a microscope, I see a cluster of Staphylococcusepidermidis bacteria sitting together in a Petri dish. They look like a bunch of grapes. Until yesterday, they were living in my armpit.

I had set out on a quest to learn about my microbiome and how it affects my health. It soon made me think of myself quite differently. Looking down that microscope, I no longer felt like an individual – I was the mayor of my own microbe metropolis.

There are many trillions of microbial organisms living in and on our bodies, outnumbering our own cells 3 to 1. We have battled them for years, with antibiotics and disinfectants. But as we get to know them better, a lot turn out to be our allies. "It's like we've been breaking down our house and only started appreciating it when we've already destroyed it to a great extent," says Margaret McFall-Ngai at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It's a complete wake-up call."
It wasn't just my own cells I had to look after, but the multitudes that call me home – from the downtown districts in my gut to the suburban sprawl of my skin. Bad management could get me into trouble. Imbalances in microbial flora have been linked to many conditions, from inflammatory bowel disease and type 2 diabetes to cancer, heart disease and depression. Upset the good guys and I risk letting a bad crowd move in. So how do I keep them happy?


The gut is the powerhouse of my microbial world. Vast numbers of bacteria live in my intestines, feeding on my leftovers. They help break down undigested food, contributing about 10 per cent of my energy and producing a variety of molecules that have an effect on my metabolism, immune system and even brain. Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, for example, plays a role in regulating sugar uptake, and having too few has been linked to Crohn's disease. Then there's Bacteroides fragilis, which keeps my immune system on its toes, and the lactic acid bacteria that help me handle stress by producing appropriate neurotransmitters.

A healthy immune system creates the right environment to attract species like these, while keeping others out. "The microbiota shape the immune system and the immune system shapes the microbiota," says Martin Blaser at New York University. "It's a two-way system."
If they eat what I eat, how does my diet affect them? To get a rough idea, Willem de Vos at Wageningen University in the Netherlands helped me set up a small experiment. For four weeks, I followed four consecutive diets. The first week I ate as I normally would – a little bit of everything. In the second week I ate a vegetarian diet and in the third week I ate meat and starch but no fruit or vegetables. In week four I returned to my regular diet but ate probiotic yogurt with every meal. At the end of each week, I took a stool sample to de Vos and his team, who analysed the fragments of microbial DNA it contained.

The dietary changes shifted my gut microbiome quite a bit – as a recent study showed, diet can alter microbiome make-up in just a few days. My microbes took a hit when I changed my normal diet. But the most interesting shift came when I gave up fruit and vegetables. During my meaty week, populations of certain species that reduce inflammation dropped, including Clostridium and Prevotella species. At the same time, other populations bloomed to take their place. For example, the number of Bacteroides went up (see diagram). Bacteroides are typical of Western diets that are high in animal protein and saturated fat and some studies have linked having too many of them to obesity.

Eating fruit and veg doesn't just keep different gut populations in balance, though. Bacteria also process plant fibres into short-chain fatty acids, which regulate several processes in the body and keep the gut barrier healthy. A weak gut barrier can allow harmful bacterial products to enter the body, with potentially dangerous results. For example, metabolic endotoxemia – a disruption of the metabolism that can lead to conditions such as type 2 diabetes – may be triggered by changes in gut flora. As for probiotic yogurts, after a week they had little effect on my relative population numbers. My lesson? Keep eating my greens, but don't worry too much about the rest.


Nothing hits gut populations like antibiotics. These drugs don't just kill pathogens, they also wipe out most of the microbiome. The disruption can cause severe diarrhoea or even chronic inflammatory bowel disease. Even a relatively mild upset can have long-term consequences, like irritable bowel syndrome.

Taking probiotics alongside antibiotics can help. The lactic acid bacteria in probiotics don't replace all the eradicated species, but they can outcompete or kill opportunistic pathogens advancing to take their place. They can also help digest lactose, give the immune system a boost and strengthen the gut barrier.

The trouble with probiotics is that their strength varies. Populations of the commonly used types, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, are weakened during the culturing and production process. They also take up temporary residence only, not settling in the gut for long. A second generation of probiotics is on its way, but they are more difficult to produce and haven't yet been approved for sale.

In the meantime, there's the DIY approach. One Dutch scientist told me in confidence that she stores two tubes of her children's faeces in her freezer – just in case. She hasn't used them yet, but came close after her children took a course of antibiotics. She thinks most people will have similar tubes stored in their freezers in a couple of years. Using your own stool is healthier than a faecal transplant, in which you take a sample from a healthy volunteer, she says. "These microbes are used to your body and your body is to them." It's a conviction born from her particular expertise. Personally, I'm not yet persuaded to clear a space between the ice cream and frozen peas.


What about the bacteria living in my mouth? I spat in a cup to find out. As in the gut, the balance of bacteria in the mouth also depends on our eating habits. A healthy mouth should contain a wide range of species. But an unhealthy mouth can be dominated by just a few different types of bacteria. "The microbes in healthy mouths are a lot more alike than those in unhealthy mouths," says Wim Crielaard at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

Some bacteria, like Streptococcus mutans, produce acids by breaking down sugars. Others, like Porphyromonas gingivalis, trigger inflammation. Too many of either can cause trouble. Acids break down tooth enamel, increasing the risk of cavities, and inflammation can lead to gum disease. Inflamed gums also let bacteria like S. mutans enter the bloodstream when we brush our teeth. Once there, it's only a short hop to colonising our joints, where they can cause rheumatoid arthritis, or our heart, where they can cause infective endocarditis, a life-threatening inflammation of the heart-lining.

In a healthy mouth, both of these species are present but are counterbalanced by others like Streptococcus sanguinis, which competes with S. mutans. Though no species alone would be beneficial, together they keep each other in check. Your saliva also neutralises acids and kills inflammatory species by producing antimicrobial peptides that target certain bacteria. So chewing sugar-free gum can help by stimulating saliva production. Some brands also contain xylitol, a kind of fake sugar, which is taken up by acid-producing bacteria like S. mutans but not digested. It builds up inside these bacteria, disrupting their metabolism.

When Crielaard gave me my result, I was happy to find that my inflammatory species were low. But the balance between acid producers and neutralisers was shifted in the wrong direction, raising my risk of getting cavities. "It's not a sin to eat or drink sweet and sour products," says Crielaard. "But when the frequency of acid attacks is too high – more than seven times a day – your saliva and neutralising species can't keep up." I made a mental note not to snack too often.


It was time to learn about the needs of my skin microbes. For four days, I skipped my shower and instead took a daily swab from my armpit, cheek, back and foot. From these swabs, Dries Budding at the Free University in Amsterdam identified hundreds of species, including typical skin dwellers such as Staphylococcus epidermidis, but also Streptococcus parasanguinis – more usually at home in a healthy mouth – and potential pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae. And over the four days the diversity increased.

That makes it sound like skipping showers is unhealthy. On the contrary. In fact, some researchers think that by washing our skin on a daily basis we could be scrubbing off a natural shield. The harmless bacteria on our skin help form a physical barrier against microbes that are potentially harmful, says Elizabeth Grice at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "They protect us, educate the immune system, modulate the immune and inflammatory response and don't allow pathogenic or opportunistic bacteria."

Harmless bacteria also prime immune cells to respond to their pathogenic cousins, as well as raising the alarm to immune cells when a pathogen arrives by triggering immune-signal pathways. For example, one recent study showed that immunity to the protozoan parasite Leishmania major requires the presence of S. epidermidis.

I faced a dilemma. Did I want the best for my microbes or the people around me? Unwashed, I risked social exclusion. In the end I made a compromise: I now wash every other day and haven't yet lost any friends.


We are born sterile. But from the moment we leave the womb, bacteria begin colonising our skin and setting up home in our gut. Just a millilitre of stool from a 1-month-old baby contains a trillion microbes. Right from the start, bacteria influence our development by shaping our immune system and producing hormones that guide the growth of our brain.

The make-up of our early microbe populations seems to depend on how and where we are born. Infants that pass through the vaginal canal during birth pick up bacteria from the mucus of the vagina. But babies born by caesarean section will be exposed to different bacteria, picking up their first microbes from the skin of other people and the environment.

One-month-old babies born by C-section have been found to have fewer friendly bacteria and more harmful ones in their guts, like the diarrhoea-causing Clostridium difficile. Formula-fed babies were found to have greater numbers of C. difficile and E. Coli. C-section babies are also more likely to develop a range of conditions, including asthma, type 1 diabetes and obesity. But whether this is due to a different microbiome or other confounding factors such as maternal obesity or premature birth isn't yet clear (PLoS One, vol 9, p e87896).

Still, a growing number of parents are choosing to supply vaginal bacteria by hand, including microbiome pioneer Rob Knight at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Using a sterile swab, he and his wife gave his newborn daughter an oral dose of microbes from her mother's birth canal shortly after she was born by C-section. Studies to look at what difference this might make are under way.


Graham Rook of University College London has proposed a theory he calls the old friends hypothesis. Over our long symbiotic history, he says, microbes and humans co-evolved. We incorporate them into our physiology, and they regulate our immune system.
Thanks to our modern lifestyles, though, we may have exiled several old friends and, worse, welcomed new enemies. Large urban communities and intensive farming have allowed harmful microbes to flourish and spread. A recent study showed that a modern office has a characteristic microbiome and buildings with natural ventilation contain different microbes to air-conditioned ones.

Rook believes it all matters. For example, city-dwellers living next to a park have been found to be healthier than less lucky neighbours just streets away. "Some psychological explanations have been proposed," he says. "But I wouldn't be surprised if the microbes turn out to make the difference."

So how should I win back my old friends? "It's not a matter of living a dirty life," says Rook. "In a modern environment, this would confront us with our new enemies." But simply stroking a cat or dog might help. Pet owners share skin bacteria with their animals that could be beneficial. Living with pets also seems to reduce asthma risk among young children, probably by boosting populations of gut microbes such as Lactobacillus johnsonii, which is thought to protect against allergies.

But my old friends may not be your old friends, as backpackers often discover: different human populations around the world tend to have established relationships with slightly different strains of bacteria. In Colombia, for example, most people have Helicobacter pylori in their stomach, which may protect against allergies. In some Colombians, though, the bacteria can also cause stomach ulcers and cancer. It turns out that the mountain strains of H. pylori were brought to Colombia by Europeans and the immune systems of the indigenous people at higher altitudes hadn't learned to cope with it.

On my quest, I learned a lot about what makes me who I am. If you, too, are urban and omnivorous, chances are we aren't dissimilar. But, of course, it's complex. We are only beginning to uncover the subtle relationship between us and our tiny inhabitants.

Questions of cause and correlation remain knotty. "Scientists should not run to conclusions about the microbiome," says Jonathan Eisen at the University of California, Davis, who thinks the microbiome will emerge alongside genetics, lifestyle and our environment as a major factor influencing our health. "When Darwin entered an island, he first catalogued all the species and only then started studying them," he says.


This article appeared in print under the headline "Mayor of Microbe Metropolis"
Jop de Vrieze is a science writer based in the Netherlands. His book Allemaal Beestjes ("Our Tiny Creatures and Us") is published in Dutch (Maven Publishing, 2014)