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Last updated on October 22, 2020

It was early 2002 when my 16-year-old daughter, Maci, climbed out of bed and stumbled into the kitchen. “How do you feel this morning?” I asked.

Her response broke me. “I never feel good anymore, Mom," she said. "I feel bad all the time. My stomach hurts after everything I eat.”

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What had happened to my daughter? Although previously healthy, she had suddenly started to develop food allergies as a young teenager. Lately, everything she ate seemed to bother her. The constant sharp pains and bloating after every meal was making her miserable and depressed.

The doctors we saw weren't helpful. Their only suggestion was to remove Maci's gallbladder and see if that would help. I was frustrated with the lack of answers.

Because my daughter was in pain, I was in pain. And I was on a mission to help her feel better.

So one morning after watching her struggle to eat breakfast, I called an acquaintance who I considered to be knowledgeable about health. What happened next changed the course of Maci’s health.

“Cultured food helps with digestion," the woman advised. "You should feed your daughter a cultured food at every meal, and see if it makes a difference.”

The foods I used to transform my daughter's health

Cultured, or fermented, foods have been around for thousands of years. But thanks to recent research, there's been renewed interest in these foods and the role they play in our health.

Because these foods are great sources of probiotics, or "good" bacteria, studies show they help keep our digestion and immune systems healthy, among other benefits. So, I decided to start serving various cultured foods with all of our meals and see what would happen.

For breakfast, Maci enjoyed a fruit smoothie made with a cup of kefir, a drink similar to yogurt, but with more friendly bacteria. At lunch and dinner, she ate a couple of spoonfuls of cultured vegetables—like sauerkraut, kimchi, or pickles—and 8 to 16 ounces of kombucha, a fermented tea.

These small additions didn't require a radical change in our family's diet. But within a month of having at least one cultured food at each meal, Maci's stomach stopped hurting. Within three months, her previous food allergies to wheat, corn, and dairy started evaporating. And a year later, she could eat everything.

Her years of struggling with food allergies and poor digestion had become a thing of the past. Plus, not only had fermented foods healed her gut, but Maci's yearly sinus infections went away around this time as well.

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What I wish more people knew about these foods

At this point, in the early 2000s, I had no real research that these foods could heal the gut and treat food allergies. All I knew was the success I had seen with my own family. But now, that's no longer the case. Today, more and more researchers are confirming the health benefits of cultured and fermented foods.

For example, a major study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences supported the idea that probiotics could cure food allergies. Interestingly, it also suggested a possible cause for the prevalence of food allergies, which rose a whopping 50 percent in children between 1997 and 2011.

The research team successfully identified naturally occurring bacteria in the human gut that keeps people from developing food allergies. But they found that the bacteria, called Clostridia, diminishes with antibiotic use at a young age. And when the researchers administered antibiotics to young mice, they discovered the mice were significantly more likely to develop peanut allergies than the control group. That means that children who frequently use antibiotics could be more susceptible to food allergies later in life.

The encouraging news is that when the mice were given Clostridia, the friendly bacteria, their sensitivity suddenly went away. They were no longer allergic.

This is very similar to what I saw happen in my own home. My daughter was given antibiotics every year since she was a young child because of chronic sinus and ear infections. She developed food allergies in her teenage years that only continued to get worse—until we added cultured foods full of probiotics in 2002.

Where we are today

Today, my daughter continues to enjoy cultured foods and remains allergy-free. I now have a blog and a new book, Cultured Food for Health, devoted to these powerful foods. I've also encouraged my friends with food allergies to try introducing fermented foods, and they've seen success as well.

I wish more people understood that food allergies are a warning sign that your gut is out of balance. We are all made up of 100 trillion bacteria, and when these special, unseen helpers diminish in numbers because of antibiotics or drugs, our health suffers.

Research on food allergies and gut health continues, and I'm excited to see what future studies will reveal. But as my family's personal story shows, a simple addition of friendly bacteria could be the key to helping you heal.

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Donna Schwenk
Donna Schwenk

Donna Schwenk is a best-selling author of Cultured Food for Life and her latest book Cultured Food for Health. She is the founder of www.culturedfoodlife.com, and has a weekly radio show Cultured Food Life with Donna Schwenk on www.hayhouseradio.com. She served for 10 years as the Kansas City Chapter leader for Weston Price Foundation, a worldwide organization made up of people dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense food to the human diet through education, research, and activism. Donna teaches classes around the country to open people’s eyes to the power of cultured foods, which dramatically changed her health and the health of her family when she began making and eating them in 2002. She and her work have been featured on radio and television—including two PBS specials, Daily Mail, and in magazines including Energy Times, Vegetarian Times, and Mother Earth News.