NOURISHMENT – Stoke the Fire
Dr. Susanne Bennett Says Kimchi Is Key to a Vibrant Life
By Robin Rootenberg
Take care of the trillions of bacteria in your gut and they will take care of you. That’s the one thing that Dr. Susanne Bennett, bestselling author of “The Kimchi Diet” (Wellness for Life Press, 2019) and creator of the Kimchi Detox program, wants everyone to understand.
Bennett is slim, with flawless skin, a brilliant smile and boundless energy. On a recent visit with 24Life staff, Bennett demonstrates how to make kimchi while she explains her own experience with its benefits. As she carefully washes a head of napa cabbage, grated ginger and apple, mashed garlic, and julienned radishes and garlic chives, she stops, thumps her flat stomach with her hands and laughs, “I’ve got kimchi abs!”
Then she asks, “Did you know that if you want to have energy for your fitness and your mindset, it takes gut health? It’s true. Gut health has everything to do with fitness and energy.”
Tradition trounces a processed diet
Bennett grew up eating kimchi and never questioned it as part of her heritage and daily family life. But she didn’t understand its remarkable role in good health until she was 50. “I was born in Korea. I lived there until I was 12, and I actually started having kimchi juice when I was 4 months old and my grandma fed it to me. I’ve been eating it because it’s tradition,” she explains.
“But when I went back to Korea when I was 50 years old, I saw something really amazing,” Bennett continues. “I couldn’t believe how much Korean people ate, and I mean hundreds of grams of carbohydrates. They love white rice, noodles, pastries and bread, yet I hardly saw anyone who was overweight.” She jokes that while her family was taking photos of tourist attractions, she was photographing Korean people’s meals.
Intrigued by the flat bellies, clear skin and vibrant energy of people who defied conventional wisdom about the ill effects of a diet high in refined carbohydrates, Bennett continued to stew over the question. “I realized that there was one major difference between the American and the Korean diet [of refined carbohydrates],” she says. “That one major difference was kimchi, the side dish they ate with every meal, even with pizzas and burgers.”
On her return to the U.S., Bennett dove into the science behind kimchi. “Kimchi is a fermented, super-probiotic-rich food … and the process of brining fresh vegetables changes the quality of the bacteria inside the food itself,” Bennett explains. The research she studied reported that kimchi could reduce blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides, and it also could improve other biomarkers, including fasting insulin and leptin hormone levels. Kimchi has been attributed with reduction in inflammation, allergies and “bad” microbe overgrowth in the gut.
Healing from the inside
Beyond growing up eating kimchi, Bennett says she was athletic her entire life. At the University of California, Los Angeles, Bennett studied kinesiology and wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. But the pain and suffering she saw in hospitals did not inspire her. So she decided to pursue sports medicine in order to work with athletes outside the hospital setting. She followed her mentor, a chiropractor, and became a chiropractic sports physician.
“What really turned me onto the path of functional and integrative medicine was my son Cody,” Bennett says. “Cody was born seven years into my chiropractic practice and he came out beautiful at 10 pounds. But he became highly allergic to the world. He couldn’t be around peanuts, dairy was super allergenic and caused anaphylactic reactions, he had mold allergies and chemical sensitivities, and contracted cerebral meningitis from a vaccine.”
Determined to find a way to help her son, Bennett went back to school. “I was the only chiropractor at the the American Academy of Environmental Medicine post graduate program for medical doctors back in 1996,” she says, and thus began her study of allergies, environmental medicine and clinical nutrition. Although she had determined her own need to avoid gluten and dairy when she was in college, she hadn’t considered nutrition’s direct effects on allergies and health. Bennett implemented what she learned and helped navigate Cody to good health—and she poured all her insights into her first book “The 7-Day Allergy Makeover” (TarcherPerigee, 2014).
All palates welcome
Bennett is proud to say that Cody, now grown, makes his own kimchi and keeps up the tradition that helped him heal. The essential process is simple, his mom explains: “When you brine, what you’re doing is you’re killing the bad bugs and cultivating gut-loving lactic acid bacteria, which loves the salt medium. This is a wild ferment. You don’t need any starters.”
“You can be keto, Paleo, Mediterranean, plant-based; I will make you kimchi if you get me salt, ginger, garlic and a vegetable I’m able to brine,” she continues. “There are 900 strains of bacteria growing in kimchi, so it outshines probiotic supplements that have a dozen or fewer strains.”
“It takes months and months to change and restore the diversity and health of your gut,” Bennett says. She advises easing into kimchi consumption because a lot of a good thing can temporarily have adverse effects. “In ‘The Kimchi Diet,’ I start with cucumber kimchi. Cucumber has the lowest amount of fermented carbohydrates,” which, she explains, leads to less gas and bloating. Bennett’s protocol introduces increasingly richer sources of good bacteria over eight weeks, progressing from cucumber to bok choy, Korean radish and finally napa cabbage kimchi.
Bennett’s recipes and instructions accommodate many dietary preferences and palates. “White” kimchi made without the bright red Korean pepper suits those who prefer to avoid spicy heat, and the dish can be made without fish sauce for vegan diets. Fermentation takes a day.
What to expect
Headaches, bloating after meals (hurts when you pull your belly in), gas, constipation, poor sleep, increasing anxiety, eczema—all these and other symptoms are on the list of conditions to monitor for improvement on Bennett’s kimchi protocol. “Give yourself eight weeks of eating kimchi every day and little by little, you’ll notice these symptoms will disappear one by one. Remember, we’re giving your gut microbiome a complete makeover and it takes a little time.”
And improvements may reach beyond physiological effects. The bacteria responsible for positive effects on both the gut and brain are called “psychobiotics,” Bennett explains, including lactic acid bacteria. “They affect your mood and behavior. Ninety percent of serotonin is produced in the gut, and it comes from good bacteria that reside there.” Bennett especially makes a point of eating kimchi when she is under stress or even returning from air travel. “The first thing I do is I eat kimchi, and it calms me down,” she says.
“All I’m asking you to do is just add one superfood that’s going to completely change your life,” Bennett says, “a couple tablespoonfuls at a time.”
Video credit: Todd Cribari, inspirostudio.com
Photo credit: Todd Cribari, inspirostudio.com; Henry & Co, Unsplash; Todd Cribari, inspirostudio.com; sveta_zarzamora, Getty Images
Hair & makeup: Katie Nash, katienashbeauty.com