Do · Eat

Tending to the garden of the scalp microbiome: What “no shampoo” taught me

Photo by Yoann Boyer on Unsplash
I took a good whiff of my hairbrush and there was a distinctive smell, so familiar, yet I could not quite put my finger on it.

This is after a week of not using shampoo. Being isolated in a hotel on a quarantine order, I thought it would be a good chance to give the “no-poo” or “no-shampoo” experiment a try.

“Cheese!” or more specially “blue cheese”.

I figured out. The smell was unique and slightly pungent but not entirely distasteful, somewhat the effect durian has on some people. Some people like it, but some people don’t. But it’s definitely not a smell one associates freshly shampooed hair with.

Besides the smell on my brush, I also noticed that a week without shampooing caused my hair to have more volume, and allowed it stayed in place when I style it with my hands, unlike the frizzy hair I usually have. To my surprise, my hair now felt and looked better.

It made me very curious, what exactly was happening to my hair, that it smelt like the by products of bacteria that ferment cheese.

I googled and found out that the scalp, like the gut, mouth and skin, has its own unique microbiome or colonies of microbes that grow in harmony with one another and with the host substrate. Different from other body sites, the scalp microbiome is characterized by low bacterial diversity and dominated by Cutibacterium acnes, Staphylococcus epidermidis and Malassezia spp. (Saxena et al., 2021).

The scalp is a unique environment, different from the exposed skin. Because of the many strands of hairs on it, it is a humid environment and protected from UV light, and conducive for the growth of unique strains of microbes. It was like your scalp is a garden where you tend strains of bacteria and some fungus, that have developed a symbiotic (or a mutually beneficial) relationship with you.

I googled and found out that some strains of bacteria, make use of the sebum or oil in the scalp, that we naturally produce to moisturize our hair, to make vitamins that are good for hair growth – like biotin, a vitamin that is good for hair growth and scalp health, something our body does not naturally produce but can be bought as supplements from your local drug store.

It intrigued me. You mean the reason why a good diet helps us to have good and strong hair was partly due to good nutrition causing us to produce high quality sebum to feed these bacteria strains, who in turn produce beneficial by products that maintain healthy scalp and hair?

And then, reading more, it appears that dandruff, a condition where flaky skin falls off the scalp, happens when there is more fungal than bacterial growth. So when you don’t take such good care of the garden of your scalp and allow “weeds” or invasive fungus to overwhelm the good bacteria on your scalp, you get hair conditions like dandruff (Saxena et al., 2018) or alopecia (balding) (Barquero-Orias et al., 2021)?

This must be why using the right shampoo, not over washing the hair, and not putting the hair into harsh situations like using chemical and mechanical treatments on them, is good for the hair. We want to maintain an environment that is conducive for good bacteria growth. And that means we want to keep some of these sebum on our hair, and let the scalp and hair be an environment that is conducive to bacterial growth.

And this must possibly be why putting some things like coconut oil on our hair (Saxena et al., 2021), or following other hair care secrets of our grandmothers, is good for the hair, because we are giving additional nutrients to our microbiome, and keeping the microbes happy, means they keep our scalp healthy as well.

This knowledge transformed how I saw my hair. I used to see it as a hassle, which kind of explained my joy when I once shaved it off two years ago. It was then to me one more thing to worry about. But now, I see my scalp and hair in a new light. It is now a mobile or portable garden where I tend to microbes. And when I eat well and treat my hair right, the microbes are kept in good balance and reward me with hair of good texture and which is easy to manage.

I am no longer tending to my hair alone for my own vanity’s sake, but I have microbe partners whose survival and growth are dependent on the decisions I make about my hair and in turn, my health and beauty dependent on them.

References

Barquero-Orias D, Muñoz Moreno-Arrones O, Vañó-Galván S. Alopecia y microbioma: ¿futura diana terapéutica? Actas Dermosifiliogr. 2021;112:495–502. (https://actasdermo.org/en-alopecia-microbiome-a-future-therapeutic-articulo-S1578219021001487)

Saxena R, Mittal P, Clavaud C, Dhakan DB, Hegde P, Veeranagaiah MM, Saha S, Souverain L, Roy N, Breton L, Misra N and Sharma VK (2018) Comparison of Healthy and Dandruff Scalp Microbiome Reveals the Role of Commensals in Scalp Health. Front. Cell. Infect. Microbiol. 8:346. doi: 10.3389/fcimb.2018.00346 (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcimb.2018.00346/full)

Saxena, R., Mittal, P., Clavaud, C. et al. Longitudinal study of the scalp microbiome suggests coconut oil to enrich healthy scalp commensals. Sci Rep 11, 7220 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-86454-1 (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-86454-1)

Do · Eat

Cooking to a Better You

I recently discovered the joy of cooking my own meals. And I have found it a wholesome activity, not just for the body, but also for the mind and soul. Here are some reasons why:

1. You know and determine exactly what goes into your food

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Once I purchased soya bean milk from a stall and watched to my horror that the lady took out from the refrigerator a packet of pre-packaged soya bean milk and charged me $2 for this cup of milk. I was disappointed as I was hoping for freshly prepared milk, which is not too hard to find in Singapore.

After I learned to make my own food, I feel disinclined to make purchases of pre-packaged food. It is convenient but what exactly are we eating? Some people alleged that processed almond milk contains as little as 2% of almonds! Now that I can make my own, I know it is simply made of almonds and water. And I can taste the difference!

You know businesses are out there to make profits, they don’t think so hard about your health (even if they may claim they do), but when do you make it yourself, you can! Additionally, it is cheaper to make your own almond milk though you do need a blender and a little effort.

2. You develop sensitivity on what your body needs

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Because you are directly in control of feeding yourself, you may start noticing patterns and asking questions. And you can even conduct experiments. What kinds of food make you full and satisfied and what kinds make you feel persistently hungry? I would think this depends a lot on our body nature and type. I have a friend who loves eating raw salad. However, for me, I prefer cooked vegetables. I just feel better after eating them.

Is including a certain food item causing you discomfort? Does excluding it make you feel better? You can control and adjust this in your kitchen. To give an example, I started breaking out in pimples when I used a lot of oil in my cooking. It may or may not be the reason why, but I experimented with fixing the issue by using less oil to see if it made a difference.

I also started to notice what I crave for and make analysis about what I am lacking based on what kind of food I use in my cooking. For example, though I may have been on a vegan diet, I realised that sometimes my body craves for meat and fish.

3. It encourages mindfulness

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I used to not want to cook because I was so inefficient at it. I did not chop things well. But when I started cooking for myself, I realised it did not matter how long I took to chop up some vegetables or how nice they looked. I enjoy chopping my vegetables mindfully. It consumed me and somehow gave me joy. Because I was slow, it was about giving myself more time to cook something, so sometimes I give myself a few hours. Time flies when I cook because I am so involved in the whole process. I realised it was a way I put love and thought into doing something.

Cooking is something that requires your full attention (unless you become good at it). There is an element of danger to the things we do in the kitchen. Because you are holding a knife to chop something, a moment of inattention may lead to an accident. Because you are using fire or heat over a stove and being preoccupied and forgetting this may lead to you destroying your pot and nutrients and flavor of your food. The best kind of cooking often comes from giving it sufficient thought and attention so you can add just the right about of spice, cook something to just the right about of tenderness etc.

4. It is fun!

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What if I told you that you can recreate anything you have ever tasted in a restaurant? Would you believe me? It is actually not too far from the truth. It depends on whether you have the right ingredients and equipment. Some dishes are easier to recreate than others, but for all you can put your unique spin to it! When I asked friends who enjoy cooking, why they do, many of them give me this reason. It is because they like to be able to cook the types of food that they like to eat.

Traveling has made this more real to me than ever before. In Singapore, you can easily find cuisines from all over the world. But when I went to different countries that were not so international, I found that the food available in one place, I could not find in another. And the only way to taste those foods again was to try to recreate them.

It is the ability to “play” with different ingredients and equipment in the kitchen that made it really fun for me. Cooking is a time I experiment, improvise, and creatively put together something nutritious and tasty. It is also really nice if I can make something that someone else likes to eat. 🙂 And more importantly, I know for sure that I made it as healthy as I can from choosing the freshest ingredients, to washing them the cleanest, and then putting it together in a balanced way.

Of course, we make mistakes and many times I cook up something so horrible, I don’t want to eat it, but there’s always another meal to try again. And you are allowed to make mistakes! 🙂 We beginner cooks all start out this way!

Eat · Feel

Giddiness – Western vs Chinese medicine

I notice that the Western doctor tends to take a local view of things while the Chinese doctor tends to take a more global one. I am currently experiencing loss of balance and it has been perplexing me. I am more afraid of one possible Western doctor’s suggestion that it could be a labyrinthine fistula which is a tear in a membrane connecting the inner ear with the middle ear, causing fluid to leak into the middle ear. This scares me because it means a traumatic event has occur and I have hurt myself. And as in any sort of physical injury, where damage to tissues has occurred, it takes very long to heal, what more at a location that doesn’t have so much blood supply like in the ears? (I think muscles get more blood supply.) Moreover, the recommended treatment of labyrinthine fistula is surgery. *sigh*

Today, I visited the Chinese doctor who thinks my blood is too cold with poor overall blood circulation and he was heating me up with acupuncture. Rather than thinking I incurred a trauma during a dive, he thinks while I was down there, in the cool waters, my body caught a cold and has become very cold, causing poor circulation. He told me he will try to heat me up with medicine in a week so I can dive again. It was my first time doing acupuncture and I loved that experience. I had like 2 needles on my lower legs and lower arms and about six between my abdominal and chest. And heating on that area. It felt very relaxing.

Both doctor’s diagnosis cannot be more contrasting. One doctor would suggest an operation to fix me, the other would suggest tweaking my general health back. I asked the Chinese doctor whether he could just fix my ear, like put the needle where it could improve the circulation at that spot (instant relief was what I really wanted after two weeks of unsteadiness, but I guess I need to learn to be patient. I can be so impatient with myself). He said he could do it but that would be trickery and he preferred to treat me holistically. He said if my general blood circulation improves, so will the circulation to and in the ears.

I am perplexed.

I do not know what to do in this situation. Only that the Western diagnosis scares me more (tremendously, truthfully).

Two more Western doctors asked me to wait and see. Wait if it clears ups, if not do a MRI scan. One of them, my own GP, thinks it’s possible that toxins had collected in my inner ear, causing the imbalance, and it would take time to clear.

My conclusion as for now?

Always seek multiple opinions and not jump to conclusions so quickly, it would scare you very much if you do, especially with a more serious diagnosis. Take time to try to understand the root causes and possible solutions. Be open-minded. And play an active role in your diagnosis and recovery. And patience would help me.

I am not sharing this on Facebook because I feel what I have written is very controversial and I am not ready to argue anything. Perhaps the advice I just gave would upset many doctors. Many doctors I have met seem to prefer if patients just submissively listened to them and don’t try to play a more active role in their own diagnosis and cure.

If you find this, hope it helps you think more about health and medicine in general. And I think I will have to pray very hard for myself too.

 

 

 

 

Eat

Siam Powder for Gastric Reflux

About two or so years ago, during a particularly stressful period of my life, I started developing what the doctor called Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) or gastric reflux. What happens is that I would have difficulty digesting the food I eat and the gastric juices would escape back up the gullet and even into my nose (seen as bubbles in the nose during the nasal endoscopy). And that’s why some people call it heartburn (The pH of stomach acid is 1.5-3.5).

After the stressful period subsided, I still periodically get gastric reflux when I eat food that is too oily or spicy or when I mix weird combinations of food in my stomach. I have resorted to keeping antacids handy, so should I need them, I have them.

In June, I traveled to Hong Kong with my friend, and it happened again. And my friend gave me what she and her father calls “Siam Powder”. It is known in Thailand as Ya-Hom or Smells Nice Powder (TastyThailand, 2017). Oh my gosh, I took it and the pain almost immediately subsided, in a speed much faster than that of antacids. I thought to myself  “What an interesting remedy!” But never went to buy it or anything like that.

Then last Friday, I was out with my friend again. I ate pasta and then some of her rojak. And the stomach acted up and this time we went to Hockhua Tonic and I bought my very own pack of Siam Powder (for only $2!). We quickly opened one and I ate it and miraculously again, the pain almost immediately subsided again.

At this point, I told myself, I must share this remedy with you.

So what is this Siam Powder?

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The one I got from Hockhua comes in a box with 12 of these sticks of rolled red and white paper with details about the medication.

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When you unwrap the paper, you’ll see this cute little bullet-like looking capsule that you’ll have to open to find a fine brown powder.

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The powder is aromatic and tastes minty. Note that it is not that easy to remove the powder from its metallic shell. You might have to knock it out and also squeeze and tear the metallic holder. (Not the most fun thing when you are urgently trying to get it out!)

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So yes, then I took this powder with some warm water. (You might not be used to taking the powder and choke a little bit.) And voilà! Feel the magic happen in your stomach! 😀

So what does the description in English say about this powder?

Uses: Taken when you feel tired or faint. Also for aromatic stomachic, carminative nausea-vomiting. Relief of motion sickness and stomach troubles that make you feel sick. It can be taken or inhaled.

And what exactly are the Chinese herbs contained within this powder?

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Why not give this Siam Powder a try? I’m going to keep a few sticks handy, just in case! 😉

Reference

TastyThailand (2017). Ya-Hom: The Thai remedy and cure for nausea, stomach ache and fatigue. Available at: http://tastythailand.com/ya-hom-the-thai-remedy-for-nausea-stomach-ache-and-fatigure-works-well/

Eat

Hari’s Kimchi Recipe

Since I posted The Amazing Benefits of Kimchi last week, I have had a few requests for the recipe that I used. My friend, Hari, so kindly agreed to let me share her recipe with the rest of you. This recipe is special because it is fully vegetarian and we do not use jeotgal or fermented seafood as an ingredient as Hari does not like the taste of jeotgal. Her mother taught her this recipe which replaces jeotgal with fruits.

  1. Wash and chop two Chinese cabbages.
  2. Mix 10 spoons of salt with the chopped cabbages.
  3. Allow the cabbages to become relaxed and flaccid. It will take about 1-2 hours depending on the amount of salt.
  4. Wash off the salted cabbages.
  5. While salting the cabbages, mince two bulbs of garlic using a blender (garlic for taste and lactobacilli)
  6. Take half an onion, half a apple, and half a pear, and one spoon of cook rice and blend this mixture (sugars to feed lactobacilli)
  7. Slice one onion, chop two bunches of spring onion (other solid ingredients to add to salted cabbage)
  8. Mix red chili pepper powder with the cabbages until you get the desired colour.
  9. Mix the minced garlic, blended fruits, onion, and rice, with the salted cabbages together with the sliced onion and chopped spring onion.
  10. Taste it. If you feel it’s not tasty enough, you can add more salt.
  11. Put the kimchi into a container, close it (to create the anaerobic environment for the lactobacilli to thrive), and put it at room temperature for about half a day (12 hours or so).
  12. Once it has turned sour (lactic acid produced), it is ready to eat. Put it into the fridge to slow down or halt the fermentation process. If you feel it is not sour enough, you can leave it at room temperature for longer, until you get the desired taste. But do not over-ferment the kimchi!

You’ll realize that it’s not too difficult to make. No cooking involved, no meat involved…  Just manual labour, sweat, and a lot of love. Hope you’ll have fun with this!

Eat

The Amazing Benefits of Kimchi

In my recent trip to Seoul, one of my greatest delights was anticipating the kimchi that was to accompany my every meal! My digestive system worked very well there and I believe it was because of kimchi! I told myself that when I return to Singapore, I am going to make my own kimchi! Last week, my lovely friend, H, gave me her kimchi recipe and I got down to work today. As I made the kimchi, I started to understand why it is so beneficial for our digestive tracts and health in general.

The first and most critical step to making kimchi, is salting the Chinese cabbage. The key to the survival of the probiotics or good bacteria is salt! Salt, an important preservative provides the environment that allows the good bacteria to thrive and the bad bacteria to die (Kim, 2017). The most important probiotic responsible for the fermentation of kimchi is the lactobacilli. A gram of kimchi is known to contain more than four times the level of lactobacilli compared to that of yoghurt (The Korea Foundation, 2010)! Among the many benefits of lactobacilli is its ability to help us break down lactose in the small intestines and compete with bad bacteria that can cause diarrhea (WebMD, 2017).

Salting the cabbage
Cover the cabbage in salt for about 1 – 2 hours until the taut leaves become relaxed.

The lactobacilli, that is naturally found in large amounts in garlic (Microbial Foods, 2015), feasts on the sugars in the cabbage and also in the other sweet ingredients such as the apple, pear, onions, and rice, and produces CO2 and lactic acid, giving kimchi its distinctive flavour and pungent aroma.

Apple, pear, onion, and rice combination
Blend the sugars (apple, pear, onion, rice) needed to feed the lactobacilli for the fermentation process.

Minced garlic is another important ingredient in kimchi. It contains allicin, a compound with antibacterial properties. Garlic is also known to help the body retain vitamin B1, boosting energy and calming the senses (The Korea Foundation, 2010).

Garlic
Chop and mince garlic to be added to the kimchi.

Red chili pepper, what makes the kimchi red in colour, has a high vitamin C content and also inhibits the growth of harmful microorganisms, aiding in the growth of lactobacilli during fermentation. Together with garlic, they enhance kimchi’s anti-cancer properties (The Korea Foundation, 2010).

Chili powder
Add chili powder and also chopped spring onions and onions, and mix with the minced garlic and also the sugar paste, and leave to ferment for about half a day. It will turn sour cause of the lactic acid. Then put it in the fridge.

So friends, next time you visit a Korean restaurant, eat lots of kimchi, and get lots of refill of it! 🙂 Enjoy this delightfully rich and flavourful source of probiotics! And hey, you may even want to try making it yourself! 😉

P.S. I have received feedback that my kimchi wasn’t salted and fermented enough. So yes, take time to let it sit on the salt and also cover up the kimchi during the fermentation process to create an anaerobic environment that promotes the production of lactic acid. When it has turned sour, put it back in the fridge.

References

The Korea Foundation (2010). Traditional food: A taste of Korean life. Korea Essentials No. 4. Seoul: Seoul Selection

Microbial Foods (2015). What brings kimchi to life? Available at: http://microbialfoods.org/science-digested-naturally-fermented-kimchi-gets-mojo/

Kim (2017). Mrs Kim’s Kimchi, Fermentation 101. Available at: http://www.mrskimskimchi.com/fermentation-101/

WebMD (2017). Lactobacillus Overview Information. Available at: http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-790-lactobacillus.aspx?activeingredientid=790&activeingredientname=lactobacillus