Home Lab: Kombucha

This winter I started brewing kombucha. Kombucha is a fermented, non-alcoholic drink that (like yogurt) has probiotics that are helpful for your gut. It’s made from tea, sugar, and a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). There are many ways to flavor kombucha, but I use herbal teas—mostly fruity ones.

Kombucha is a little tangy, a little sweet, and a little bitter. When all goes well it’s wonderfully fizzy. The fun part about making kombucha is every batch is a little science experiment. The goal is to produce a drink with a nice flavor combination and delightful carbonation—but it all depends on how happy the SCOBY is. The teas you use, the temperature, the amount of sugar, and the time you wait all influence the kombucha outcome. If you wait too long, the batch turns out very much like vinegar. If you’re too impatient, the kombucha is too sweet (because the microbes haven’t had time to eat it) and flat.

I’m just getting used to brewing in the summer, where the temperature is much warmer and the process goes way faster. Today when I checked my bottles, I had to put each one I opened in the sink because they had so much fizz they overflowed like a shaken soda bottle!

The kombucha process changes the flavor of the tea you use—sometimes for the best, sometimes for the bitter. For example, I DON’T like peach tea, but when I turn it into kombucha it’s quite yummy and not as painfully sweet as I find straight peach tea.

There’s something highly satisfying about cultivating microbes to produce something healthy. Many of us only think of bacteria when we get sick or when we want to kill germs—which makes us forget how many microbes are working for us each and every day. I like the meditation of thinking about microbes as my teammates.

Brewing kombucha has made me think more about the good microbes in my life, and it’s also made me feel better. A glass of kombucha a day, seems to keep the stomach aches away. I noticed this when I traveled in Spain for 2 weeks on vacation recently—many days my stomach hurt even though I was eating healthfully. I think it was a combination of my gut missing kombucha and my digestive system wanting to know where the yerba mate was (mate also changes how you digest food and I drink a lot of mate too). Not entirely by accidentally, the beverages I enjoy daily (mate and kombucha) both help with digestion. When I was younger I used to have a stomach ache almost every time I ate. I almost never do now. It could be growing up. It could be the microbes. Regardless, I enjoy the challenge of making my SCOBY happy so it works for me—I figure one more symbiotic relationship in my life can only be good.

The Snowy Paths of the Brain

Imagine a scenario in which there is a steady snow. In this hypothetical, the snow never stops and it has already accumulated several feet on the ground. In this place you have a house, a barn with animals, and a woodshed.

Imagine it is a day filled with the regular chores of a house and barn in Vermont. The first time you trudge out to the barn in the morning it’s hard to blaze the path through the thigh-high snow, but as you go out again and again—to feed the animals, to give them water, to collect eggs, to clean out the stalls—the path becomes more packed and easier to travel with each pass. Even though it’s snowing, the path between your house and the barn stays well-groomed because you travel it so often.

Now, imagine you have to get wood for the woodstove. You start down the well-defined path to the barn and, then, veer off into the snow to go to the woodshed. The first time you go to the woodshed, it’s a tough slog through deep snow. Subsequent trips are easier. You only need to get wood once over the course of the day, even though it took you many trips to get it, so hours after collecting the wood the trail you made is starting to disappear under fresh snow. By bedtime, the path has completely disappeared because you didn’t retravel it that day.

The pathways in your brain are like the trails between the buildings on the snowy property described above (credit for this analogy goes to my anatomy and physiology professor this semester, Dr. Matt). As children, we are building many pathways while at the same time eliminating unused pathways. The amount and rate of forming new pathways and connections in the brain slows with age but, even when we’ve lived long enough to be wise, our brain continues to reshape itself. The formation of new pathways, strengthening of others, and pruning (eliminating) of infrequently used routes in the brain is called “neuroplasticity.”

Neuroplasticity, the resiliency and reshaping of our brain, is one reason researchers worry so much about children who don’t have access to many learning opportunities or live is stressful family situations. These experiences, or lack of experiences, shape the children’s minds for the rest of their lives. It’s easier to be ready for the learning done is school, if before you start your brain is used to hearing stories and practicing words and math. It’s easier to be ready for more school and job responsibility if you were lucky enough to master elementary school. It’s easier to know how to be confident, happy, and kind if you’ve experienced those things many times.

Neuroplasticity is also part of the reason why drug addiction is considered a disease and is so difficult to beat—drugs can change the pathways in our brains. Once someone is addicted to drugs, their brain is literally wired to want, seek, and (even) need the drug to function normally. It’s hard to avoid a path you know well and that has become central to your existence. For example, how often do you change the route you take to work everyday?

Neuroplasticity is also more general in a way I find inspiring. To me, it’s evolution’s way of giving us one more reason to be hopeful. The idea that we can reshape our brains if we’re will to trudge enough times to forge a new connection is awesome. It’s also amazing that if we try hard enough to stop using a pathway, it will weaken. This gives us fantastic opportunity for life-long learning and self-growth. It means we can train ourselves to understand new things, act differently, and even alter our response to specific situations. It means that we can discard habits and build new ones if we are willing to put in the energy to tackle the snow of our mind. Life isn’t static and I find it inspiring that we (individuals) need not be either.

Framing: Beautiful Microbe, Beautiful Molecule

Before I started down the health science path I studied communications. In communications, there’s an idea called “framing.” Framing is a theory that’s often applied to the media and how it shapes public opinion about certain topics. The concept is that how you talk about a specific topic (ex. healthcare)—such as the tone you use and the details you include (or leave out)—can shape other people’s perceptions of the topic.

I’ve noticed that several of my science professors use framing as a teaching tactic. And, despite knowing exactly what they’re doing, I still fall for it.

I’m currently studying microbiology and organic chemistry. There’s a lot of new information to learn and for organic chemistry there are a few new thinking skills I’ve been practicing—such as being able to think about molecules in 3D. It’s an interesting challenge to train your brain to be able to rotate different molecular structures using only your imagination. I’m lucky enough to find microbiology and organic chemistry fascinating, but still it’s hard work. That’s where the framing comes in.

My organic chemistry professor introduces particularly complex or tricky molecules as “beautiful molecules.” “This is a beauuuutiful molecule,” he’ll say. He’ll also start a new chapter by saying “This is an important chapter. This is very cool…let me tell you why.” And, somewhere in that explanation of how awesome the challenging topic is, he’ll make a few comments about needing to practice the skills he’s about to show us. “But I will teach you how to…” he will conclude.

My microbiology professor does the same thing. I always know when he’s preparing to introduce a particularly complex metabolism, process, or cycle used by bacteria because he’ll pull up a picture of a microbe and say “This beautiful microbe…”

Those are current examples, but my general chemistry professor did the same thing. His word for hard concepts to learn was “interesting” rather than “beautiful.”

So what’s going on with this inappropriate use of descriptive words? Framing. Why? Because it works. As absurd as it sounds, it’s way easier to fight with a beautiful molecule than a molecule that’s “annoying” or “difficult” or “challenging” from the very start. I don’t think microbes are necessarily beautiful, but I approach them with much more interest and forgiveness when they are presented to me as “beautiful” rather than “ugly” or “evil” or “bad.” And, when trying to complete long chemical equations, it is a lot easier to complete the “interesting” problem than it is the “hard”, “tricky”, or “terrible” problem.

What’s my long-winded point? Before I dove into science I heard that it was “hard” and “confusing” and “dry” and “boring” and many other potentially negative adjectives. Sometimes I completely agree. But, most of the time, I do think it’s amazingly interesting. I think we’d do a lot of young people thinking about their future (and older people looking for something new) a service if we framed science as something wonderful. Sure, there is plenty about it that’s hard, and even monotonous, but most of it (all of it maybe) is not beyond most people’s reach. We’ve just conditioned our population to think science is either too complicated for them or not something they’d find interesting by describing it as scary, trying, and a thing that only geeks and brilliant people do. It’s worth a frame-shift around science. Why? What better way to find answers to medical questions, renewable energy questions, etc. than having more people researching and exploring those topics?

Energy Levels

Atoms cling to, share, or pass electrons. They do whatever it takes to make themselves more energetically stable—not reactive and content as they are.

I think we have some lessons to learn from atoms and their energy lowering endeavors—let’s say we are the atoms, the electrons are aspects of our lives, and the energy state is our emotional state.

In the world of negative electrons and positive atom nuclei, the more energetic the relationship (imbalances in charge, which basically means repulsion and attraction forces aren’t equal) the less stable and the more likely the atom is to undergo change. Electrons in high-energy states, unstable, cause chemical reactions from little ones like putting baking soda in vinegar to big ones like bombs exploding.

I’ve noticed a similar situation in my own life…and those around me. The higher the energy (emotion)—whether it be negative like stress as deadlines and huge projects loom or positive like an awesome vacation—the more reactive we are. Of course, our fizzing reactions might be petty arguments and our explosions could be bouts of extreme agitation, but nonetheless we are more likely to respond dramatically when our emotions are high or low.

The thing that’s clever about atoms is that they are willing to exert themselves to achieve a more stable state. In other words, they will do the atomic version of sweat it out—to ensure they’re living in a happy medium. And, they’ll go to great lengths to defend and maintain a stable state once they have it.

I propose, just like atoms, it’s worth it for each of us to build into our “to-dos” a little bit of energy maintenance. Atoms maintain stability by shedding or attracting electrons…what are the electrons in your life?

When In Doubt, It’s An Energy Problem

I have a running joke about physics: When in doubt, it’s an energy problem. Before you stop reading, let me try to enlighten you with the humor. Picture yourself in your first semester of physics. You’ve tried solving one problem, yes one silly little problem, for over an hour. You’ve combined pages worth of equations and moved around variables like a wizard. No luck. You set it aside. Try again. And again. No luck. You go to your review session. A cunning smirk lifts the corners of your professor’s mouth when you ask, exasperated, if he can please review the problem. He completes the problem in two simple steps.

There’s this nifty law about nature—it’s called the conservation of energy—and it states that energy can’t be created or destroyed, only transformed. I know. You’re thinking, “By golly she’s turned into a real science nerd in a couple short months.” Sure, I’m guilty, but let me make my non-science point…

The quality that makes the law of conservation of energy so darn handy is that it allows you to ignore all the complicated transformations that occur during a journey and just focus on the beginning and end. By boiling a process down to two points, you’re able to paint a picture of what happened without seeing what occurred. And knowing without knowing is quite a powerful thing to be able to do.

Now, let’s bring energy out of the land of physics. In my world, energy means the chutzpah to get things done. I, like you, have a lot of things I want and need to do. I’m often not exactly sure how I’m going to shoulder the load. It’s exhausting to just think about all the little straws piling up on one’s back. In thinking about all my to-dos, a list of which can and does fill pages, I realized something. Tasks are not unlike equations. And, getting to the end of a to-do list is not unlike solving a physics problem.

What I’m saying is that conservation of energy is not only a physics thing but also a life thing. It’s a way to shift your perspective from being buried in the minutia of all the little details to being able to see the whole arc of your adventure. I find it exceptionally grand to think that even though I’ll take every step on the road between here and there, I don’t have to fixate on every single one. What matters are where I am now and where I’ll be then. As I forge ahead on the doctorhood quest, simplifying life to just energy is quite motivating. I don’t know every action and transformation that will occur between now and when I’m a doctor—nobody knows the future. But, I find it easy to be optimistic when I realize that I have a lot of good mojo now, and that wherever I am later that pizazz will still be with me in one shape or another.