Bring on the Bacteria

Making your own fermented foods for better gut health

Food has the power to heal. For some this is common sense, however, for many others it is a radical statement. Arguably, those in developed countries are likely to fall into the latter camp, as decades of drug-focussed medicine has led us to believe that antibiotics are the answer to all ailments. The consequences of this are well documented, with antibiotic resistance emerging as a significant global health threat.

Part and parcel of this over reliance has been the loss of traditional methods of healing, particularly those that involve the gut. Only in recent years have doctors began re-examining the role our digestive systems play in our overall wellbeing, a remarkable lag considering the gut is in fact one of the most complex systems in the body after the brain.

May Ly, founder of Enlightened Foodie, explains: “Around 80 percent of our immune system is found in the gut, which is what keeps us healthy and free from illness. About 90 percent of serotonin is produced in the gut too, which is an important chemical that helps regulate our moods, appetite and sleep. All of these crucial factors are impaired by a damaged gut.”

May runs a number of workshops through Enlightened Foodie designed to help people understand more about their guts and the foods they can incorporate into their diets to heal them. These courses include the Ultimate Gut Health Workshop, in which participants learn how to make two types of fermented foods: red cabbage sauerkraut and fermented carrot sticks.

May, a mother of three boys, runs these three-hour sessions from her bright and breezy home in Thao Dien, where I was invited to take part in the experience that also includes a sumptuous vegan lunch that participants can easily recreate at home. Before we got started, though, May shared her journey with me over a cup of kombucha—a delicious fermented tea that was the launch pad of Enlightened Foodie.

“I got interested in bacteria when my youngest son was diagnosed with clostridium difficile. He was prescribed courses and courses of antibiotics that were making him worse and worse and then my doctor in Sydney recommended I start making kombucha using scoby—a type of fermented yeast and bacteria. It was amazing: after two weeks his symptoms started improving and in two months it had completely cleared up.”

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May now makes a stunning variety of kombucha—from passionfruit to strawberry mojito, ginger, turmeric and black pepper—however as her workshop attests, her interest in bacteria did not stop there. Having already successfully treated her own blood sugar spikes with the paleo diet, she began feeding homemade fermented foods to her family. The results she saw were impressive; not only was her youngest son healed, but she says her eldest son’s autism was remarkably improved.

She now refers to her fermented food shelf, which takes pride of place in her dining room, as her family’s “medicine cabinet.” She says she has also helped friends to improve their children’s health, including one whose severe tic entirely disappeared after fermented foods were introduced into his diet.

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As we all finely chopped the cabbage for our sauerkraut, May explained that this is because the bacteria created through fermentation increase the availability of the vitamins in the food, and help our bodies to absorb them. In-fact, she claims that the fermented carrot sticks that Ultimate Gut Health Workshop participants learn to prepare have around 300 percent more vitamin c than fresh carrots.

“These days we’re told that bacteria is bad—but actually we need all sorts of bacteria to be healthy. In a state of wellness, our bodies are naturally equipped to battle out the bad guys—it is able to heal itself if it has the right environment. Fermented foods help to create that environment by re-introducing all of those beneficial bacteria. It’s time we welcomed the bugs back into our lives!”

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May is also a proponent of whole, unprocessed foods, which she makes the mainstay of her family’s diets. Lunch was an example of a typical family meal in her household: pumpkin bone broth another super food’ with numerous health benefits) baked sweet potato fries, wild black rice salad, raw green salad and roasted rainbow vegetables—all followed by mango and chia seed puddings for dessert.

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“Whole foods really are the key to a healthy life. I know it can be difficult with kids—we don’t always know what they’re eating at school or at friends’ houses—but at home I focus on unprocessed foods. Of course it’s important we all have the occasional treat, like bread or a bit of chocolate, but if you eat whole foods most of the time you’ll just feel so much better.”

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May adds that the most important ingredient in any meal, though, is ‘love’, which she stressed to us as we prepared our carrot sticks. Indeed, in all of her workshops May collects the scraps from participants’ chopping boards for a communal “love jar” that is given to the winner of her Gut Health Quiz, which rounds off the morning. While I didn’t take home the prize, I did leave with a completely new appreciation of bacteria, which I am now eagerly observing in my fermenting carrot sticks.

To find out more about Enlightened Foodie workshops and health coaching, visit or see The Ultimate Gut Health Workshop and lunch costs VND2.4 million, including all materials and recipes.

Images by Vy Lam

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