22 Jun Health Hero interview: Shann Jones
Shann Jones is the co-founder of Chuckling Goat, a Wales-based company that makes probiotic skincare and delicious, gut-loving kefir.
For those who may not have tried it, kefir is a fermented milk drink that’s brimming with good bacteria. A staple of many Caucasus, Russian and Central Asian cuisines, research is now uncovering the many health-boosting benefits of kefir (that were intuited by ancient cultures). These include improving digestion, supporting blood-sugar balance and enhancing mood.
Shann has long touted these restorative properties, and is a well-respected voice when it comes to addressing gut issues. Her new book on the topic, The Kefir Solution: Natural Healing for IBS, Depression and Anxiety, is out this month. With her knowledge, her infectious enthusiasm and her compassionate nature, she is the epitome of a Health Hero!
In this interview, Shann reveals the life-and-death story behind her discovery of kefir, how she regards true health, and why you aren’t necessarily what you eat…
How would you describe your job?
I am the co-founder and co-director of Chuckling Goat. We make a drink called kefir, and we also make skincare from the kefir. My day-to-day job involves running that company. In the bigger picture, I’m involved in innovating products to solve problems that doctors haven’t been able to fix.
What inspired you to work in this arena?
I’m not a doctor and I’m not a scientist; I’m a mother and I’m a wife. I was driven to this when my family had health problems that the doctors couldn’t help us with.
Initially my son had bronchial infections and eczema. I kept taking him back to the doctor to get more and more courses of antibiotics. I said to my husband, ‘This is wrong. We really need to do something about it.’
He said, ‘Well, let’s get a goat.’
In the Welsh tradition, they know that goat’s milk is good for eczema, allergies and bronchial conditions. So we got a goat and we started making this probiotic drink called kefir.
Then my husband got very ill. He went into hospital and came out with an MRSA infection. The doctors told me there was nothing they could do, and they wouldn’t take him back into the hospital because they screen for MRSA. What happens now? I thought. He just stays on my sofa and dies?
I wasn’t prepared to let that happen. I figured if I’m asking the question, ‘How do I kill the infection?’ and the answer is, ‘I don’t, he dies,’ then I’m asking the wrong question—because I don’t like the answer. So I asked a different question: how do I bring this all into balance?
I did have an answer for that—the kefir that we were making out in our little stone barn. Kefir brings balance into the microbiome. It puts the good bugs in there, and the good bugs control the bad bugs. I thought maybe it would work the same way on skin as it did inside the gut. I couldn’t find any research showing that anyone had ever used kefir on the skin, but I had nothing to lose, so I tried it. I alternated a wash of essential oils to knock the pathogen level back, with a wash of the kefir to repopulate the good bugs.
It worked. We cleared it within 2 weeks. His wound healed and the sores healed, he got up out of bed and went back on his tractor. He’s been happy and healthy ever since.
That experience taught me that, just like your gut, your skin is a microbiome. I learnt to put the kefir into soaps and lotions and that’s when our business really started going.
What does your typical day look like?
I get up at 6 o’clock, I do yoga and meditate, and then we have a team meeting at 8 o’clock. We live and work here on site so it’s a 30-second commute, which I definitely have on my list of success metrics!
Every single member of chuckling goat sits down, so that we’re all on the same page. We ask a question—perhaps, ‘What’s something you did yesterday that you’re proud of?’ or, ‘What’s something that you saw somebody else on the team do well?’—so that we can big each other up. That’s a really an important part of the system to me, that the team is very tight-knit and it’s an aspirational thing to work here. After the meeting, I’ll either be working on a book or our new educational video series, which is designed to help people understand the science of the microbiome.
The team have some lunch, and then in the afternoon I usually do consultations. We’ve got more than 100,000 clients at this point (we’ve had a 6,000% growth in the past 4 years) and it’s important to me that I’m in direct contact with the clients who are struggling with severe conditions. I like to work with them free of charge—it’s kind of my treat to myself—and make sure they’re getting what they need.
I’ve also been then exploring medical herbs, because that works very well with the kefir, and I’m now taking another qualification as a medical herbalist. I’m learning more and am currently creating a new skin balm that has the herbs in it.
Since the business took off, one thing we’ve done is treat ourselves to a hot tub. We get in there in the evening and debrief the day. Some of the family might come over for dinner, and then we sit and watch television!
What does health mean to you?
Health isn’t just the absence of illness. Health is when your ecosystem is such great shape that it sings. You get up in the morning and you feel it as an active presence in your life.
What do you think are the biggest misperceptions about health today?
We have a point-and-shoot mentality that has dominated medicine, much to our detriment. We have the idea that we can kill all the bugs and that sterile is possible. Allow me to correct: you cannot kill all the bugs, and sterile is not possible. It’s an ecosystem. We are part of a natural network—you can’t just wipe out one part.
I like to tell a story about Yellowstone to illustrate this concept. I’m an American, so this is an American story! In the 1800s, Yellowstone was so beautiful that they decided they wanted to make it a park for everyone to enjoy. But there was one problem: wolves lived there. They threw the park open to anybody who wanted to kill as many wolves as possible. And kill them they did—until 1927, when the last wolf was killed in Yellowstone.
Great, except once all the wolves were gone, the elk population went crazy. They started overgrazing the willow, and the willow trees all became denuded and died. That then impacted the beaver population, because the beavers used the willow to make their dams. The beavers started to die. Once the beavers were gone, there were no nice, still pools for the fish created by the beaver dams, so the fish started to die. And the birds that ate the fish started to die. And the plants that were spread by the seeds that the birds carried started to die, and the microbes clinging to the roots of the plants began to die. And Yellowstone began to turn into a desert.
So, in 1995, they took a very controversial decision to bring the wolves back into Yellowstone.
Sure enough, the wolves started to cull the elk, and the elk population came down, and the willow came back and the beaver came back, and the fish came back and the birds came back, and the plants came back, and the microbes that cling to the root of the plants came back!
Just to clarify: bringing the wolves back altered the microbes in the soil.
So that’s what medicine does. Medicine takes the wolves out of Yellowstone. We don’t yet understand the whole of the human microbiome, but every piece of information that we do gain teaches us that we cannot point and shoot. It doesn’t work that way. All you do is damage the ecosystem and knock it out of balance.
What’s your favourite thing to eat?
Traditional welsh cawl! We tend to have a roast on Sunday, and then on Monday the carcass of the roast goes into the big soup pot and simmers for a long, long time. The collagen in the joints, tendons and bones melts into the water, which helps repair the lining of your gut when you eat it. Of course, anything else you’re putting in there—vegetables, for example—is getting nice and broken down too, so it’s like the ultimate gut-healing food. It’s very traditional and my husband will eat it, which is always a plus.
If you could give just one piece of advice concerning food, what would it be and why?
Drink kefir. It is so unbelievably important. They say you are what you eat, but that’s not true—you are what you absorb. If your microbiome isn’t in shape, you cannot absorb anything. You could be eating raw, organic gold every day but, if your gut bugs are compromised, you’re not breaking it down and you’re wasting your time.
Who do you look up to, and why?
Dr Natasha Campbell McBride. She’s the woman that I learned to make kefir from, and she was talking about the microbiome long before anybody else.
I heard her on BBC Radio 4 talking about kefir. I got in touch with her and said, ‘OK, tell me how to make kefir that you’d be happy to give to your clients.’ She was very generous with me and taught me how to do it properly. That’s why our kefir’s unflavoured. We make it with real grains. It’s the proper Russian way.
All the stuff about the microbiome, I initially learned from her. She’s my hero.
Tell us something about you that people wouldn’t expect.
I love to read gossip magazines. The trashier, the better. I don’t just read them in the dentist’s office—I buy them and I take them home!
Aside from good health, what do you cherish in your life?
Connection with my family. The strength of the ecosystem, after all, is defined by the number of links and connections between the organisms in it.
I grew up as an only child so it’s important to me now to be part of a big family. Being a member of a tribe, meaning that somebody has my back when I need it, has been a life-changing experience for me. I can’t do without it.
To find out more about Shann’s book and to buy kefir, head to the Chuckling Goat website.