“There’s a monster lurking in my gut.”

Trailing through the reams of research and stuffy articles on digestive health and autoimmune conditions, the human story can sometimes get a bit lost. For instance, there’s a great deal of focus on symptom complaints and potential remedies but little on the significance and meaning of the struggle and the way it shapes our lives. Join me in this three part conversation with kindred spirit Jonny, as we explore the history and experience of our own gut problems and the change it brought to our lives.

Darren: Hey Jonny! The reason why I was so moved by your story, much like my own, is that we haven’t been passive to the experience of being sick. In fact, it seems to have been very transformational for us in terms of our own research and the different life choices we have had to make in order to heal; essentially changing the way we live and relate to others. I’d like to invite people into that perspective through our conversation – looking at the experience of two people that have become active in social change around health and their story as it relates to healing the gut.

Jonny: Yeah – let’s do it!

Darren: So – tell me a bit about your story? I would like to hear about where you are now? What’s your perspective on the history of your illness and recovery?

Jonny: There were a number of significant events leading up to my getting ill – it’s only recently become clear that they contributed in a big way to my illness. For instance, when I first got ill, I had no need to question my lifestyle. I just thought that it was a dose of antibiotics that destroyed my gut.

When I was younger everything was so easy for me. I was an Olympic athlete, I went to grammar school and I had perfect results in everything; I was very popular and played every sport under the sun. I went to America on a scholarship to play sport – but unfortunately things didn’t work out. I returned to the UK after that to work in a corporate bank. I earned a lot of money and lived the 9-5 lifestyle, spending a lot of money on drugs at the time.

I think the antibiotics that fucked up my gut were the straw that broke the camels back in a way. You know, there are people that stay on antibiotics for years and yes they have health problems, but they don’t enter the virtually psychotic states that I entered into after an initial six month treatment.

When I first embarked upon the holistic path to healing I focused solely on healing my gut and I found that I did make a lot of progress through diet; doing the candida protocol; doing the iodine protocol, having my mercury amalgams removed, going on a heavy metal detox, juicing etc – I did a lot of meditation too.

But it wasn’t until I went down the route of self-reflection through psychotherapy… I would say my actual gut health, ironically, seems to have improved more after looking at why I got to that point of complete overload. Why did the antibiotics tip me over? It was that whole prelude of looking at my life up until that point that became very significant to my healing.GUTEMOTIONS

Now I can see that in the time leading up to when I got ill I had turned off from the world – every year I was becoming more and more self absorbed in my bubble of what was becoming patterns of terrible behaviour – mindless consumerism, a poor relationship, living in a house which was a terrible environment for me. So yes, there’s a lot of things that have gone wrong in my gut, but my gut is very much connected to so many aspects of who I am, who I am as a person, my psyche – trauma, anger, regret, passion, love.

Darren: Resonates completely.

Jonny: Personally, I’ve had a few experiences with DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) in previous years. Every time I use DMT I get this incredible surge of pain in my stomach and I feel like there is a monster lurking there. I enter a bit of a battle when I do DMT. When I see friends on it they’re transfixed by colours and beauty – but I’m writhing about in pain? It’s only through self-reflection and psychotherapy that I’ve started to explore this ‘monster’ in my gut; It’s related to things that have happened to me in the past, things that I’ve internalised over the years and things that have been passed down the line from my parents and my family.LURKING

Such intense pains are a bit strange as I don’t tend to get digestive pains anymore. They’ve subsided – they come back a little if I drink milk, eat gluten or have some yeast. My gut is generally quite stable compared to where it was, which is why I believe I have done an incredible amount of healing on the physical level but I have much deeper psycho-spiritual levels to delve into.

Darren: I think you raise two important points. This notion that you inherit the pain and suffering of your parents – there is certainly some residue of that at both the cognitive and somatic level for all of us. In regards to the psychedelic and entheogenic experience as a way of tuning in and understanding what’s being held in the body, my own experience is also of very intense sensations and feelings whilst being in that state of consciousness. My experience is of some kind of blockage, of there not being adequate ‘flow’ or movement energetically within the body. Essentially I think this relates to some early trauma and is what underpins to some extent the digestive issues I have. The health of my gut is linked completely to the way I relate to the world, the emotions I carry – the fear, anxiety, anger and so on. I think this is borne out by work in the field of psychotherapeutic bodywork. For example, Welhelm Reich’s work around character structure and armor is a good place to start.

HolismI think healing the gut demands a truly holistic approach and demands that we stretch the limits of what we currently understand and practice as ‘holistic’. There clearly isn’t one way into healing the gut – and even colleagues in alternative health circles need to be challenged on this point sometimes, not just biomedical practitioners who work through a very narrow lens. There’s obviously so much more going on than what happens at the level of biology.

What I’d like to hear though – is a little bit more about the actual experience of when your gut became compromised post antibiotic use and a little bit more on the awakening to a more holistic perspective on health and healing?

Jonny: Cool. Back to when I was working in a bank and consuming mindlessly – things that I would class as escapism – I was spending a lot of money on stimulants and partying. When I was about 21 I suddenly developed acne which was very surprising – as there was no history of it in my family and I had perfect skin as a child and a teenager. It was really unusual to get really deep sebaceous cysts which were like horns on my head. Very painful. The doctor at the the time took one look and didn’t seem very interested. He prescribed me antibiotics and said that would get rid of it. I trusted the doctor at that time – I had no reason to question medical science as I’d had very little engagement with the field. I had a very healthy childhood. The acne disappeared within three weeks – however, after about four months, I began displaying various symptoms whenever I ate cereal, which at the time was apparently a healthy diet as far as I was concerned – you know, low fat, don’t eat butter, wholegrains and all that stuff!

Darren: haha! It’s terrifying isn’t it! The mainstream advice on what correct nutrition is! Especially when you contrast it with what is appropriate nutrition – where the main precepts completely challenge mainstream dietary advice.

Jonny: Yeah, anyway – my normal breakfast of oats, honey and milk would start to cause me bloating, terrible wind and pain on the way to work. There was also a real change in my energy too. This developed to where I would get sweats after having cereal and milk in the morning. I’d basically feel like shit. After a month of this I went out for some beers with friends and woke up the next day with the most horrendous diarrhea compounded by an awful panic attack. The only way I can describe it is as if my brain was on a treadmill – my thoughts were racing at a speed I’d never experienced before. I had a Researchterribly hot core but my limbs were freezing. The panic attacks continued and I had to take time off work; my appetite declined and my mental health spiraled. I finally went to the doctors who said I had a virus and to stay on the antibiotics that I was on. I started to loose lots of weight in the following weeks, my mood dropped and all my social activities stopped too. I ended up going to my Dads for a weekend of rest and recuperation – it was when I was with him that I started to have suicidal thoughts for the first time. I’d never had any mental health problems up until this point. It really threw me. My mental health continued to decline until I became completely delusional – I’d lost the plot. I didn’t know what was happening, I struggled to talk – my parents had to take me to the doctors as I was incapable of driving. He put me on antidepressants.

It was my parents who did the initial bit of research online and said that there were lots of testimonies from people who had taken antibiotics and ended up with stomach problems, IBS and depression.Antibiotics

Darren: Which antibiotic were you on at the time?

Jonny: Lymecycline. Part of the tetracycline class of antibiotics. Total broad spectrum nuclear bomb – it’s like putting a nuclear bomb in a fish pond to kill a bit of algae overgrowth.

I was on SSRI’s too – you know, they usually say that you get worse before you get better on SSRI’s. Well at this point I was very sick, I lost so much weight I looked liked a holocaust victim. I was totally cut off from the world – it was like being in an acid trip that was the most horrendous trip you could imagine. I slept for twelve hours a day and couldn’t get out of bed. I struggled to be in a room without my mum because my anxiety was so bad. After six months of this – after having to do CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) just to leave the house and see friends again, my digestion improved slightly and I went back to work but still left with residual anxiety and also OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). I couldn’t handle any stress though and began to experience real fatigue and exhaustion. I slowly realised that my job wasn’t fulfilling me – I started to ask what I was doing with my life.

Darren: Before we get onto that… I wanted to pick up on the parallel. My own experience was very similar. I spent four months on antiobiotics as prophylaxis when I went travelling in the East four years ago. The specific antibiotic was Doxycycline I think. My mental health immediately suffered after returning from the trip. I’d had mental health problems in the past – I’d also had a lot of other courses of antibiotics in the past too. But not to the severity after returning from the trip. The first insight of my medical doctor at the time was to prescribe SSRI’s, much like you – totally missing the point that the mechanism that was causing the distress – the depression, the OCD and related anxiety was a disturbance in gut ecology.

SerotoninJonny: Yeah, I mean the concept of serotonin – that in itself is flawed in many ways. Two things come to mind with serotonin – you can measure serotonin levels in the body via a blood test. That’s no indication of what is actually going on in terms of the brain and then the gut and then the serotonin neurotransmitters that are throughout the body.

As far as I am aware you can’t measure what the efficiency or the use or the level of serotonin is in the synapses of the axons – you can measure what the levels of serotonin are in the blood, which the NHS don’t do anyway – but if they did do it, it doesn’t relate to the levels of serotonin that are in the brain or in the gut. Secondly, the SSRI works as a selective re-uptake inhibitor. It allows the serotonin to cross over into the synapse of the axons but stops the re uptake; the theory being that within the synapse the serotonin is allowed to stay there and somehow that improves our mood because the re-uptake of it is stopped. Again, this seems flawed. Why wouldn’t you concentrate on increasing the serotonin through nutrition, which you can do by encouraging more tryptophan in the diet which is an amino acid that converts to serotonin. You can find huge amounts of tryptophan in bananas, chicken…

Darren: There’s also 5HTP..

Jonny: Yeah! That’s the pre-cursor, proven to cross the blood brain barrier..

Darren: I guess, remarkable effects of 5HTP on conditions like IBS too?

Jonny: Yeah, there’s been some really interesting published research on 5HTP too – a lot of it compiled into a great book called 5HTP: the natural way to overcome depression, obesity and insomnia by Michael murray. I think the serotonin theory is massively debatable – there’s a complete disparity of correlation in levels of serotonin in the blood and peoples quality of life or mental health. For example, some people have very low levels of serotonin levels and may be absolutely fine but someone who has depression may have normal levels of serotonin – one of the first studies to show this disparity was published in in 1976 by Asbert (1). Serotonin levels are just part of the picture, a very small aspect – there’s an incredible amount of things going on, whether that’s toxicity in the body, energetic imbalances due to trauma, nutritional deficiencies, other neurotransmitter deficiencies – you know serotonin is just one aspect.. you have dopamine, gabareceptors…

Darren: Which all perform and act synergistically I guess. The body it seems is an ecological system – you can’t look at one unit of the body and try to map from that exactly what is going on?

Jonny: You’ll find in orthodox medicine a lot of the drugs are obviously patented – but they are for conditions they will make money on. You can’t patent 5HTP, it’s an amino acid and it’s made for peanuts. You can buy 100 pills for between £10-15 and it will last you a couple of months. Compare that to Zoloft and Prozac / Sertraline – they were really expensive when they first came out. They are still riding out on the fact that people don’t have access to this information. I had to deal with the side effects of all of those drugs. I remember having terrible insomnia for example after going on SSRI’s. I wouldn’t be able to get to sleep and it completely disturbed my energy system – like a sensation of electricity running thought the body. When I did get to sleep I wouldn’t wake refreshed. They also effected my erections – when I got an erection, I couldn’t orgasm.

Darren: That’s really interesting – the point about orgasm. Would you say that your overall sensitivity was reduced too?

Jonny: It’s a very common side effect of SSRI’s actually. Even after coming off the SSRI’s my sex drive has returned – but my sensitivity has been compromised still definitely. There seems to be some lasting damage in that area in terms of decreased sensitivity. I found when I did some research years ago and found out about quite a number of law suits that had been taken out by a number of males that were experiencing lack of sensitivity and also impotence. A good book out at the moment is the ‘Emperors New Drugs’ by Irving Kirsch – it’s basically about the SSRI ‘hoax’; basically the terrible hypothesis and flawed research that they are founded on. When you look at the media support for products like this, you can usually trace anything supportive back to someone who has an invested interest.BIAS

Darren: Yeah – I mean if you look more broadly at clinical trials – the much vaunted ‘randomised control trial’ that is seen as the gold standard of scientific ‘proof’ – they are nearly always backed by pharmaceutical companies that have a vested interest in them, with the outcome usually being in their favour. I mean this is pop research – easily findable. I think Ben Goldacre mentions it in one of his books.

Okay Jonny – let’s catch up soon in the next segment!


  1. Asbert, M. (1976). Serotonin depression: A biochemical subgroup with the affective disorders?Science,191, 478-80; Asberg, M., (1976). 5-HIAA in the cerebrospinal fluid.Archives of General Psychiatry33, 1193-97.

‘More than a workshop on kimchi – it speaks to the politics of food, access & inequalities too.’

Over the next month of our crowdfunding, we’ll be checking in with people who have been to one of our workshops and drawing on some of their experiences to help illustrate the benefits of supporting our work. Below we speak to Aidan who came to one of our workshops in July.

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Aidan 🙂

What is your name?

Aidan McGarry.

What attracted you to the workshop with Octopus Alchemy?

I wanted to learn more about the politics of food. I am into cooking and enjoy knowing about different aspects of taste and production. I knew the workshop would educate me on a topic I knew little about.

Did the workshop play out as you expected it to?

Yes the workshop played out as I had hoped and expected. I appreciated the theoretical background to fermentation: ‘the science part’. If we didn’t have this underpinning it would feel as though something was missing.

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Octopus Alchemy at the Coniston Institute.

How do you feel that the workshop experience changed your perspective on health and nutrition?

What I really enjoyed about the workshop was how it changed my knowledge and understanding of health and nutrition. I think everyone should understand about the health benefits of fermentation. But more than that there is a clear social value to it too. As issues around food waste and inequalities become more pronounced workshops like this make people aware of what they are eating and why. The fact that it tastes good is a bonus.

Why should people support Octopus Alchemy’s crowdfunding campaign?

People should support Octopus Alchemy’s crowd funding because it is an excellent idea created by someone who is extremely passionate and knowledgeable of a topic which concerns us all. It is more than how to make kimchi (although that is a great reason to run a workshop!) as it speaks to the politics of food, access and inequalities.

 You can read another testimonial about OA workshops here.

Octopus Alchemy:

Activating communities. Reducing Waste. Creating superfood.

We believe that to ferment is a radical political act, the effects of which reverberate beyond the kitchen. Back our fermentation-based, waste-reducing project in Brighton & Hove of ‘Transforming Food Waste into Superfood’ and support us in continuing to have a creative impact on our local food culture and beyond.

Check out our wicked incentives. No donation to small. If you can’t spend, then please share.

 

 

Quinoa crisps are not the answer.

Leafing through the ‘Yoga Journal’ squatting on the throne a number of weeks ago – yes, I squat these days, it’s the only way – I was startled to how an ostensibly ‘spiritual’ magazine had been infiltrated by so much advertising and product placement. An array of everything from yoga ‘essentials’ to support your practice, to courses aimed at personal development, to the proper gear to make you all the rage in class. Granted, said ads were interspersed with a few principled and erudite reflections on the practice – but nevertheless the gloss was spattered with the kind of materialism and narcissism that seemed out of place back to back with the principles of Patanjali’s Sutras.

Of course, the counter to this argument might be of the regressive realist sort; that the fracturing of our principles is by default required in our market economy, to ensure audiences can be reached, expanded and supported in their own ‘spiritual development’. But I suspect more often than not, such space given over to commodity and materialism hardly raises an eyebrow – health consumerism is in a different league after all.

What is health consumerism if not an attempt to realize our human potential, physically, emotionally and spiritually?

A fair assessment of our readership might be the politically aware and ecologically conscious kind – with those values expressed in their choices as consumers. Quality food is probably a high priority for you and perhaps a portion of your budget is spent on ‘getting well’ or maintaining wellness – you have acupuncture, get a massage, buy herbs, supplements, have therapy etc.

In the context of consumerism, many of these choices are seen as ‘right choices’, or at least better ones – well meaning and informed by an eco-intelligence; with a desire to realize some potential, be the best we can be in our lives and tread lightly whilst we’re at it. It’s the poor, uninitiated and reckless that whittles away their dosh on pork scratchings and jaeger bombs anyway, isn’t it?

But how do we discern when our health consumerism is out of control? And to what ends does it serve? In fact, are we prepared to even consider ‘investing’ in our health as consumerism at all?

Waking up to health as just another market isn’t an easy thing – it elides detection as an avenue for zombie-like consumerism, because it seems to operate in a different realm. The health commodity is not always as substantial in the material sense, appearing to transcend such crudity via the romantic ecological or spiritual narratives that support their production. That, or their affinity with the impulse to seek ‘health and wellbeing’, which has become the holy grail of our contemporary society, renders them not only legitimate and worthwhile, but essential criteria of our modern lifestyles.

Most of our waking hours are spent wading the swamp of conflicting advice and information around health – with State guidelines merely reflecting the regurgitated tripe of shadowy corporate lobbyists, with an exasperating array of regimes, diets, interventions and products all claiming some essential truth of human health and vitality. We are pushed violently into a state of neurotic self-surveillance and continuous work on our bodies via a means of the different ‘technologies’, disciplines and compounds on offer. No sooner have we seen the bottom of our multi-vitamin and mineral bottle, we’re reaching for a new formula – in spray form, that self-initiates as vapour from the bedside table.

Yet, chomping on our stale kale crisps, will we let ourselves ask if it’s all worth it? Or indeed, whether it’s the right path? Reclined and pinned (literally) to the massage couch – is this where relief is? Is your vitamin-D deficiency real – or does the impulse to supplement come from a place you’re unwilling to explore?

Our modern lifestyles and concentrated urbanism are already a source of chronic anxiety – the call to health and its pursuance delivers us into a state of hyper-anxiety; wading through mounds of processed shit to source the ever-illusive ether for our ills.

Working with my ‘spiritual accountant’ recently (my definition, not theirs), we discussed the impulses behind my own health consumerism. Which tied in beautifully with some previous grappling (with the aid of another very wise guide) with my personal conception of healing.

It seems a neat trick of our neoliberal architecture, the biomedical worldview and perhaps the narcissism of our times, that healing can be so reduced to that which we can consume. Of course, in the context of the very real conditions and maladies induced by the toxicity of our environments and milieu, consumption can be a matter of life and death. But the impulse to consume for consumptions sake, to attain this advertisement of perfection rolled out to keep us rolling, is surely a distraction from the kind of fulfillment that is an authentic prerequisite to ‘feeling well’.

Like my intelligent guide said, in not so many words – true healing is a collective, not an individual endeavor. A sense of deep connection; to each other, our communities and our environment, primes the terrain of the body to the kind of equilibrium that makes us content, resilient and open to embracing the new ways of being and thinking that gives real basis to fulfillment and the individual and collective foundations for health.

Perhaps it’s time to step from behind the convenience of a ‘limited holism’, perpetuated by the market of ‘health and wellbeing’, to be brave enough to say – ‘no, I’m not okay, and a mountain of quinoa crisps and wheatgrass shots won’t make it any better’. And to encourage a healthy solidarity in demanding the kind of radical social change that means our communities and our environments become our general panacea.

Or perhaps it’s time for another green tea. I’ll put the kettle on.

OA Update.

Hello friends,

It’s rare we indulge in an ‘update post’, but there are so many developments and opportunities on the horizon over the coming months that we wanted to shine a light on them.

Yesterday (October 21st), we hosted yet another cracking little workshop at Silo in Brighton, with special guests Old Tree Co-op participating to showcase their radical little micro-brewery that keeps the restaurant furnished with a diverse range of wholesome fermented drinks.

We have a very special month ahead for October, with our first appearance being at the College of Global Studies in London, lecturing for a course on Environment, Community & the Arts.

Afterward, we travel to the north where we are holding workshops on the 14th, 17th & 19th of October on political nutrition and fermentation with The Real Junk Food Project Manchester, The Real Junk Food Project: Sheffield and Real Junk Food Project Wigan- Fur Clemt cafe consecutively.

Then, week beginning 20th October, we will be off to Coniston and Lawson Park for the ‘House of Ferment’ with Grizedale Arts – talking an ‘Archaic Revival of Food’ and the significance of fermentation as a political act.

We are still waiting to hear about a potential appearance at the Food Sovereignty gathering on the weekend of the 23rd October but look to be back for another workshop on the 26th October at our home and hub of radical food politics, Silo.

We will also be running a workshop on behalf of the ‘Feed the 5K’ event in Brighton, date to be confirmed later this month.

Thanks to everyone that makes this work possible. Proper gratitude! Check out some of our recent workshop photos below 🙂

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Old Tree Coop discuss the politics of their micro-brewery and the drinks kefir and kombucha.

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Thread cut like a pro – participants get to grips with sauerkraut.

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Investigating kefir.

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Sweet Tatty’s ready for some spice.

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The famous seabuckthorn kefir – with a seabuckthorn champagne in the wings. Only at Silo, Brighton.

Fermented Salsa

Packing a punch: Fermented Salsa.

An archaic revival of food; introduction to sourdough and other techniques. Workshop at Silo, Brighton 9TH August.

On Sunday, August 9th @ 6.30pm, Silo, Octopus Alchemy and Infinity Foods Bakery are teaming up to deliver a food-fermentation workshop. Come along and seize your chance to gain loads of great practical knowledge on fermentation and the incredible healing properties of live food, and also learn some about the history and politics of fermentation.

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Sauerkraut making with Octopus Alchemy @ The Foodshed, Brighton.

You’ll get the opportunity to do some creative hands-on fermenting at the restaurant, with ingredients sourced by us depending on their season and availability. You get to take home a batch of whatever is made too, with the rest being served up at Silo once it’s fizzing suitably some weeks later.

This month, we are hosting Infinity Foods Bakery for an introduction to sourdough! Come and see Simon Parker demonstrate the art of sourdough baking and talk some about his philosophy around fermentation and his passion for this ancient art.

In other demonstrations, we’ll be looking at sauerkraut and fermented nut cheese – with a specific focus on an authentic recipe for kimchi: the potent Korean staple that has become a global fascination (check out an amazing introduction to kimchi, here). True to the principles of localism and sustainability, we’ll also look at adapting the recipe to fit what ingredients are in season and more readily available to us. Away from fermentation, but still very much in the vein of traditional foods, we’ll also have a short introduction and demonstration of how to make ‘ghee’ or clarified butter – a real tonic for your gut and overall immunity and metabolism. 

Kombucha & Kefir Interactive

Kombucha & Kefir Interactive

The event runs for approximately three hours and is priced at £25 which should be paid in advance. There are some concessions available. The workshop is limited to twenty people, so please remember to book.

To book, please email octopusalchemy@gmail.com

Confirm your attendance via facebook, here.

If you have any spare jars knocking around at home, bring them in and make sure you get to take some of your creation home with you (small jars please)! Otherwise, any spare jars knocking around at home will be very welcome by the restaurant.

What to expect:

  • 40min introduction to the politics of fermented foods and their health benefits.
  • A short introduction and demonstration of sourdough baking by Simon Parker from Infinity Foods Bakery.
  • Demonstration of three different ferments.
  • Introduction and demonstration of ‘ghee’ or clarified butter.
  • A chance to experiment with different versions of sauerkraut and kimchi in a practical exercise.
  • Take a portion home with you!
  • A chance to taste and buy some pre-made kimchi.
  • A bloody good time.

VERS2OAA little bit about your host: Octopus Alchemy is a social venture in Brighton that talks food-politics and traditional foods. It is run by Darren Ollerton: a food-activist, blogger and bodyworker living in Brighton. You can see testimonials about OA workshops here.

‘Vessels of Dissent’ – Fermentation as politics from below.

It’s easy to misinterpret fermentation as some unremarkable practice, carried out by fuzzy old ladies in farmhouse kitchens in the back of beyond – and of course it is, but that’s not all of it. In fact, the potency of those few fizzing mason jars and cobwebbed crocks hanging out in your nan’s cupboard goes far beyond taste and an old wives remedy: they symbolise a kind of politics from below; a lively critique of the way we live our lives and how we understand our bodies and their place in nature.

It’s no secret that fermentation is making a comeback in the West or that knowledge(s) about the importance of the microbiome are resurfacing again (contrary to the arrogance and imperialism of biomedicine, this is not a new discovery or even particular to the West). Katz’s revivalist efforts are now complimented by a landslide of interest in the techniques of wild fermentation, of culturing and preserving. Every other week, peculiar and inventive little projects crop up in urban centres and beyond, preaching the lacto-gospel: fermentation on wheels, fermentation installations, fermentation festivals, blogs, podcasts and potlucks. In my home town of Brighton, fermented products now appear on swanky restaurant menus, with gourmet chef’s the world over crafting taste-experiences from this age old tradition. Sourdough bread, a novelty only years ago in the face of its cheap, white and easily processed rival, is (for the reasonably well heeled) becoming a staple once again.

An ‘archaic revival’ in food is occurring; less of us now blink uncritically at the waves of corporate propaganda of ‘tasty’ and ‘convenient’ food. A generation of medical refugees, sick and fatigued by denatured and contaminated food and the biased and mechanical prescriptions of their biomedical Doctors, are reaching into the past to reclaim life affirming knowledge and skills. Fermentation is one of those skills, with each dry-salt or brine having a cascade of effects beyond its container – they are ‘vessels of dissent’, the web of relations and effects extending from them into cultural, environmental and political realms.

Challenging contemporary food culture:

There are now endless texts rallying against our contemporary food culture, all with the same underpinning message, which is that the commodification of our food and the profit motive in food production has run amok and the system that prevails undermines the well being of our animals, the health of our people and communities and ultimately, the ecological balance of our planet too.

Every so often, (usually) independent media gives us a glimpse of the horrors of the industrialised method applied to food production: animals are treated like objects, workers no better and the 41k+yYzyf4L._UY250_food itself is engineered and adapted to predictable outcomes (usually lucrative ones) with no thought for the human, animal and environmental costs and consequences.

Curiously, just as globalisation encourages the spread of different cuisines and our experiential access of different cultures and their foodways, the homogenisation of our food: its taste, texture, appearance and content in Pollan’s words: rolls out like a ‘great undifferentiated lawn across the globe’.

Food has become a ‘private transnational commodity’, subjected to the whims and fancies of our market economy. The communities once built up around food have dissolved as ‘buyers’ interact with ‘producers’ and alienated ‘consumers’ attend brightly lit and sanitary halls, stocked with food-commodities – their origins, histories and stories of human / nature co-creation muffled and obscured by cellophane packaging and garish labeling; designed to say as little about the product as possible and c990dd4941eabdb4d49e7a2ec0f9f745everything about the dream of sunshine, clucking hens and the ‘good life’ that most of us rarely get to experience, never mind the food.

This violent separation of the urban consumer from food production and producers, means that (massively exploited) producers, no longer tied or responsible to their communities, shell out denatured food using all manner of toxic inputs and processes to please ever more stringent targets set by buyers. And consumers, distracted from the ‘non-economic attributes’ of food, approach it in the most objectifying way as to be almost apathetic about it beyond its superficial qualities.

Perhaps it is this disconnection from and appreciation of our food in its totality (as beyond just food; embodying a sacred web of relations and connections) that makes for such depression in our Foodcommunities, such listlessness and dissatisfaction at what should be a simple joy. The commodification of our food has created an artificial scarcity and exclusive hierarchy, where only the privileged eat and eat well – ‘routine hunger, malnutrition, premature deaths, famine’ and noxious amounts of waste are the byproducts of this system.

Fermentation then, is an ‘eloquent protest’ in the face of these circumstances, a reconnection with food-as-nutrition, which in turn encourages a respect for the nature of food itself and the people, animals and land that make it possible. The complexity of any one ferment, its inherent ecology of bacteria and enzymes, their innumerable interactions and bubbling byproducts puts us in touch with the wonder of food again. There’s nothing plastic, artificial or detached about sourdough, kefir, miso or kimchi – they are literally frothing with life and overflowing with life-force; ecologies of such spectacular diversity that our previous food-programming perishes under a radical remembering of the life and magic of our food.

The experimentation and play that accompanies fermentation represents a rejection of the predictable, affected and meaningless products churned out by the market – it is a celebration of distinctiveness, the peculiar, of artisanship and taste. The communities that thrive around Commodity-Tradingfermentation, mirroring the excitement of the ferment itself, branch out and swell – spreading knowledge, practices, skills and wisdom. Old food-economies are transformed by new energy and insights and new and alternative economies are born; where small producers and hobbyists deliver innovations and operate on different principles, such as the pioneers of the ‘sacred’ or ‘gift’ economies. Time and energy is reclaimed from the current ecocidal economy and trajectory to stage a revolution from our kitchens – ultimately, food is de-commodified and becomes meaningful again.

The biomedical monopoly and the mechanistic worldview.

Chronic disease have become a remarkably persistent feature of our contemporary medical landscape. Indeed, over 60% of deaths worldwide are now reported as resulting from a variety of chronic conditions. This phenomena goes someway to framing the explosion of interest in fermentation, as more and more people engage with the health benefits of these sour and whiffy creations.

Beyond their alleviation of various ailments and maladies, this popular engagement with fermentation as a healing modality shifts the way we relate to our bodies and how we perceive The biomedical approach.their place in nature, challenges the current biomedical orthodoxy on what illness is and how health can be attained and asks serious questions about what legitimate knowledge is when it comes to health and disease.

‘Biomedicine’ is another way, in anthropological parlance, of talking about the kind of clinical medicine, grounded in the scientific worldview, that has been the dominant mainstay of our medical landscape since the scientific revolution of the 19th century. Early on, biomedicine’s legitimacy was derived from its handle on bacteriology and the control of serious infections (no joke in the squalor of the sprawling and insanitary urbanism of the time). Its dominant position in the field of health the world over is in most cases underwritten by the State.

Biomedicine is founded on certain principles, which defines health by the absence of symptoms and which focuses chiefly on the biological and physiological causes of illness and disease – to the detriment of social / cultural / political and environmental factors which are themselves significant determinants of health and which, notably, are considered in the more holistic modalities that biomedicine has spent most of its career trying to repress, humiliate and appropriate. In many ways, medicine should be one of the most robust forms of social critique we have – after all, where inequality, oppression, deprivation, isolation or a lack of social cohesion or personal fulfillment fester, disease will too.

In essence, the biomedical worldview is reductive as opposed to expansive – medical problems are observed as stemming from some biological pathology and treatment is usually oriented at particular malfunctioning cells or systems in isolation, via surgery or pharmacology – and more holistic interpretations of illness and disease are discounted as ‘quackery’.

Popular dissatisfaction with biomedicine is not a new phenomenon, the wave of lay disillusionment with the discipline began in the 1970’s with the rise of a medical counter-culture in San Francisco that saw a surge of interest in new magical and holistic approaches to health, as well as in ancient systems of health care from the East such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda.

Apart from biomedicine’s obvious biological determinism, people were and are fatigued at the iatrogenic effects of its interventions and medicines, its excessive medicalisation of all areas of life, the invasive nature of its procedures, its bureaucratic and high tech nature and its complete failure in the realm of chronic disease.  Nevertheless, its formidable material base, its legal / political protections and affinity with the capitalist outlook have allowed it to sweep any dissent under the carpet and appropriate any useful aspects of alternative medical models or systems.

Credit: Stephen Jeffrey.

The antibiotic has been one of the main modes of pharmaceutical intervention in the biomedical arsenal over the last 70 years. In 1940, antibiotics were heralded as a revolution in medicine and they have no doubt helped us to bring some very serious infections under control. But their abuse, both in human and in animals, has led to aggressive and drug resistant pathogens becoming a persistent feature of our microbial landscape. The consequence of this biomedical worldview is a cultural paranoia around microbes which equates to what Sandor Katz calls ‘the war on bacteria’; from ‘pseudo-medical’ practices like antibacterial hand washing to chlorine in our water supply, we have become almost neurotic about nuking these vital unseen ecologies.

Away from the proliferation of drug-resistant pathogens, no longer kept in check via the natural competitive environment of healthy microbial ecologies, there are even more sinister and pernicious consequences. The biodiversity and integrity of our internal microbiome (our resident ecologies of bacteria and microbes which ‘interact to form complex webs of mutual support’ and which promote optimum metabolic, immune and cognitive function) suffers irrevocably, with the consequences of this destabilisation only now becoming apparent. As Martin Blaser describes in his book “Missing Microbes’, the disappearance or extinction of a ‘keystone species’ of bacteria in the human microbiome means the overall ‘ecology suffers and can even collapse’.

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Check out: ‘Your microbiome may hold keys to cancer treatment’.

This is the context to the ‘modern plagues’ that are now a common feature of everyday life – obesity, diabetes, asthma, oesophageal reflux, hayfever, eczema and other skin conditions; inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis and Chrohn’s as well as various types of cancer have all been linked in some way to disturbances in the microbiome. Heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, osteoporosis and chronic fatigue have too become persistent features of the modern medical landscape – many no doubt accompanied by conditions of the gut, usually denied or at least rarely investigated by biomedical doctors, such as ‘leaky gut syndrome’, ‘gut dysbiosis’ or ‘small intestinal bacterial overgrowth’. Not to mention the increased frequency of all kinds of cognitive ailments such as anxiety, depression, dyslexia and autism – the book Gut & Psychology Syndrome by Natasha McBride will be a revealing read for anyone interested in the gut/brain axis here. Finally, food allergies, almost undetectable in indigenous communities engaged in pre-modern lifestyles, are at epidemic levels. It’s clear that something has gone badly wrong.

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Check out Blaser’s book!

The research on probiotic therapy is encouraging and many of the conditions above are indicated as improving and sometimes being wholly resolved by bolstering and enhancing our internal flora with particular focused strains. However, ideas about the appropriate composition of the human microbiome is yet more biomedical conjecture, with studies borne out in indigenous communities turning up strains of bacteria identified as potentially harmful in Western hosts. Reliance on commercial probiotics for healing, whilst definitely appropriate in some instances, also support the very same system and corporations that have a chequered history as regards to human health and the environment; Monsanto, Nestle, Pepsico and General Mills have all funded studies on the gut and the microbiome and the probiotic industry is set to become a $45BN market by 2018.

Fermentation and the new medical paradigm.

Fermentation then, comes into its own here too – of course, little official research has been done on nanna’s crocks in terms of their therapeutic application and effects: testing is a tightly controlled industry (with big pharma the usual benefactors) and no one is likely to earn money from age old techniques we can all have a bash at! But there is no reason why bacteria growing in home ferments cannot be as beneficial and resilient as commercially produced strains. Indeed, indexwhat is more important is ‘variety, diversity and incorporating the bacteria native to different raw ingredients’ and I would add, the local environment. In a world where the ‘randomised control trial’ has become the oracle of truth and legitimacy, through fermentation, subjective knowledge and experiences of healing becomes important once again. Nanna’s arthritic knee eased by her daily kombucha stays eased, irrespective of whether the result has been validated by a biased trial or not.

Fundamentally, dabbling in the fermentation arts is to challenge the biomedical monopoly. Whereas biomedicine prefers itself as the sole arbiter of medical knowledge, our fermentivist communities know differently – our lacto-adventures encourage new understandings of the body, of health and disease and ultimately our relation to nature.

When we consider that the reality of our bodies is that we are just 10% human (bacteria outweigh human cells in the body 10 to 1), it dawns on us that we are not so much mechanical, individuated microbiome-title-890x395and self-contained as ecological, expansive and interdependent. We begin to approach the body as an ecology in and of itself, a vibrant system where all parts are interdependent: an ecology situated within a larger ecology, which is our environment, the planet and its lifeforms. We begin to realise that our symptoms are not genetically dictated but are epigenetic phenomena, which mirrors to some extent a rupture or impropriety in the way we relate, biologically or consciously, to our environment at large.

To take a case in point: recently a bit of research was released that showed how social anxiety in adults was relieved through regular consumption of fermented foods. What are the consequences for understanding social anxiety here? Is social anxiety purely a relational phenomenon between humans, born of some personal and internal imbalance or neurosis? Or does social anxiety have a more holistic foundation – does it stem also from a disruption in our unseen connection to nature: dependent on our internal mirroring of the microbial biodiversity external to us?

Fermentation and replenishing the microbiome is of course not a panacea – health involves a truly holistic perspective (social, political, environmental, biological, emotional and spiritual), not a limited one. But its practice and enjoyment raise important questions about humanity, culture, biopsychsocial-modelecology and healing. The revival of this ancient practice has significant consequences for the biomedical worldview, as it does for our economy and culture at large – lay interest in alternative approaches and systems of health creates a critical mass difficult to ignore by biomedicine, which in an attempt to diffuse the revolt is necessarily changed itself through its natural impulse to monitor, marginalize, control and appropriate. The emergence of the biopsychosocial approach to health from within biomedicine, or pyschoneuroimmunology is a product of this very same process.

The ‘gut as centre’ and beyond.

By now, I hope we’ve established that our fizzy concoctions are potent beyond their basic utility. Each forkful of our tangy treats is a kindly gesture of homage toward the unseen ecology and lifeforms with whom we live so interdependently. The recognition of this symbiosis does not just reverberate change into our food economy and conceptions of health, disease and approaches to healing – the circle expands to effect our politics, environment and communities too.

The art of fermentation is in many ways a way of placing the ‘gut as centre’ to our philosophy to life and healing – which may hold great transformational potential for our societies. The gut in eastern philosophy is understood as a store of great power and potential. Zen Monk’s will always motion at IMG_4794the gut if one asks, ‘from where do you think’? And this makes perfect sense, given that we know the gut, or ‘second brain’, boasts around 100 million neurons, uses more than 30 neurotransmitters (the same amount found in the brain), and harbours around 95% of the body’s serotonin (serotonin plays an important part in the regulation of learning, mood, sleep and other essential regulatory processes). It enjoys a unique communicative relationship with the brain and is a primary (and incredibly sensitive) interface with our external environment. It is also home to the largest colony of microbes in our bodies, totaling some 500-600 different species and weighing in at around 1.5-2KG – the harmonious balance and biodiversity of which is our best line of defence to the onset of the many ‘modern plagues’ that now ail us.

Looking after the gut as a source of vitality, health and well-being is paramount. Whether that’s limiting the amount of damaging foods you’re exposing yourself too, or attempting to support or re-establish a good flora via fermented foods. Indeed, nurturing your microbiome is a true recognition and practice of holism: it requires that we have a proper relationship with the external, germswith the ability to nourish our gut in particular ways – to bring that reality into alignment has ramifications beyond the individual, into wider social, political and environmental realms. A change in the way we relate to external structures, effectively impacts and transforms those structures in terms of what they do and are able to provide.

Ultimately then, along with other traditional forms of food prep and knowledge, fermentation is one of our key tools in honouring the gut as centre – and in this respect is a radical act: a form of activism on the margins, a DIY warfare of the unseen against the life-inimical forces of our ecocidal economy. Our cupboards don’t contain innocuous jars of mere pickled veg, they contain ‘vessels of dissent’, which symbolise a re-awakening to an ecological consciousness counter to the mechanical and toxic drudgery of the pharma-military-industrial complex.

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Octopus Alchemy in action.

Through the art of fermentation, the body is disassembled conceptually and we become infinitely complex and profoundly connected to nature; we rely less on biomedicine or biomedical knowledge, seeking to improve and nurture microbial ecologies rather than decimate them; pharmaceutical use declines; our individual relationship to food changes and so does the organisation of our communities around food, their connection to producers are changed and monopolies are shaken; alternative economies flourish and communities too; food waste declines and organic produce is sought; better land management occurs and biodiversity improves; soils enrich and carbon is captured; we enjoy better connection with each other and the land, more meaning and more truth; stress declines, happiness increases, cognition, immunity and health improve overall.

After an afternoon of scribbling out the web of relations that extend from the art of fermentation, I can say there seems hardly an area left untouched. If there’s ever been a more persuasive reason to get alchemical, surely this is it.

Food-Fermentation workshop @ Silo with Octopus Alchemy & Old Tree Coop (Monday 27TH JULY @ 6.30PM).

On Monday, July 27th @ 6.30pm, Silo and Octopus Alchemy are teaming up to deliver a food-fermentation workshop. Come along and seize your chance to gain loads of great practical knowledge on fermentation and the incredible healing properties of live food, and also learn some about the history and context behind the demise of traditional foods and practices like fermentation in the industrialised world.

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Sauerkraut making with Octopus Alchemy @ The Foodshed, Brighton.

You’ll get the opportunity to do some creative hands-on fermenting at the restaurant, with ingredients sourced by us depending on their season and availability. You get to take home a batch of whatever is made too, with the rest being served up at Silo once it’s fizzing suitably some weeks later.

Alongside the wild ferments sauerkraut and fermented nut cheese, specifically this week we’ll be looking at an authentic recipe for kimchi: the potent Korean staple that has become a global fascination (check out an amazing introduction to kimchi, here). True to the principles of localism and sustainability, we’ll also look at adapting the recipe to fit what ingredients are in season and more readily available to us. Further, Nick Godshwa from the Old Tree Coop will be providing an introduction to, demonstration and tasting of the fermented beverages, kombucha and kefir. Not to mention an insight into the ethos and philosophy of their venture. 

Kombucha & Kefir Interactive

Kombucha & Kefir Interactive

 The event runs for approximately two hours and is priced at £25 which should be paid in advance. There are some concessions available. The workshop is limited to twenty people, so please remember to book.

To book, please email octopusalchemy@gmail.com

To confirm attendance via facebook, click here.

If you have any spare jars knocking around at home, bring them in and make sure you get to take some of your creation home with you (small jars please)! Otherwise, any spare jars knocking around at home will be very welcome by the restaurant.

What to expect:

  • 40min introduction to the politics of fermented foods and their health benefits.
  • A short introduction and demonstration of the fermented beverages, kombucha and kefir by our friend Nick Godshwa at The Old Tree Coop.
  • Demonstration of four different ferments.
  • A chance to experiment with different versions of sauerkraut and kimchi in a practical exercise.
  • Take a portion home with you!
  • A chance to taste and buy some pre-made kimchi.
  • A bloody good time.

Nick Godshwa & Old Tree Coop

A little bit about your host: Octopus Alchemy is a social venture in Brighton that talks food-politics and traditional foods. It is run by Darren Ollerton: a food-activist, blogger and bodyworker living in Brighton. You can see testimonials about OA workshops here.