As a Naturopathic Doctor, I approach patients with the core concept that gut health is critical to overall health and wellness everywhere in the body. Most of our bodies’ immune system is actually found in the intestinal tract and the immune system relies on maintaining gut health to function properly. When supporting intestinal health the first tool that we use is fermented foods and their use as medicine.
Naturopathic medicine emphasizes evidence-based medicine, and fermented food has had a plethora of good research showing what a great thing it is for our health. We continue to discover the health promoting properties of ancestral diets like the Mediterranean, the traditional Japanese, Norse, and other aboriginal diets, and we have discovered that the fermented foods eaten in these diets may me one of the reasons they are so good for overall health and wellbeing.
Fermentation makes foods more nutritious and digestible, as well as improving flavor and freshness. Microscopic organisms transform food and extend its usefulness. Fermentation is used for many types of foods throughout all human cultures. In our modern understanding we have hundreds studies that confirm that fermented foods help people stay healthy. Many of your favorite foods and drinks are probably fermented.
What is Fermentation? The most basic definition of fermentation is that it is the chemical digestion of a food by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms. Fermentation is an anaerobic process essentially pre digesting the food ,which makes nutrients more bioavailable and easily absorpable as well as preserving the food. For example, the amount of bioavailable vitamin C in sauerkraut is about 20 times higher than in the same helping of fresh cabbage. During this process, natural bacteria will feed off of the sugar and starch in the food creating lactic acid (a preservative). Normally, we try as hard as we can to prevent bacteria from tainting the food we eat but there is a difference between bacteria that is healthy for your gut and bacteria that isn’t. Lactic acid bacteria, the bacteria that carries out the fermentation process, is one of the best killers of harmful bacteria.
Why is Fermentation good for our health? The process of fermentation helps to digest food and release various nutrients, vitamins and minerals necessary for optimal health. The ability for our bodies to do this from raw unfermented foods actually decreases as we age, making this just one reason why fermented foods are important for our health, they are more bioavailable and nutrient rich. The bacteria in fermented foods also produce vitamins, amino acids and other nutrients. Finally fermented foods provide our body with a constant supply of the good bacteria (like sarchomyces or Lactobaccilus) which is critical to helping protect our digestive tract from bad bacteria and establishing proper gut health.
A lot of food that we love to eat is fermented. Olives, yogurts, cheeses, pickles, wine, mead, cider, beer, pickles and sauerkraut, Bread,, Wine, Beer, Mead, Cider, Chocolate, Coffee, Tea, Pickles, Sauerkraut, Kimchi, Salami, gravlox, Miso, Tempeh, Soy Sauce, Vinegar, Yogurt, Kefir, Kombucha. all are fermented foods. However, even if you buy these products at your grocery store, they may not have the benefits of we expect from fermented food because of the chemicals and pasteurization methods that destroy all the good bacteria that would normally be found in a well made fermented food.
Even though fermented foods are so good for us, and many consume foods made by the fermentation process, we actually rarely eat them. As the food industry developed it was found to be cheaper, safer, less time consuming and offered better for shelf life for companies to opt to preserve foods with chemicals and heat. For example, Olives or pickles can be made in salt-free brines by using an acidic solution of lactic and acetic acids, potassium sorbate, and sodium benzoate, which is a much different process than the natural fermenting method of traditional salt preservation. Industrial processes such as high-heat pasteurization, refrigeration, and vinegar’s acidic pH retard or halt the fermentation and enzymatic processes and disable many of the health benefits. Pasteurization uses high heating to kill bacteria in our foods, both beneficial and pathogenic.
Thus the age of good quality fermented foods ended when safer food packaging began. This has definitely had a mixed bag of benefit and detriment. Benefit because of a sharp decrease in food born illnesses caused by faulty preservation. Detriment because pasteurization of a fermented food meas the loss of all of the probiotics bacteria. We are not getting enough good bacteria in our diets, which is one of the main health benefits of eating fermented foods.
What are Probiotics? Probiotics are the blanket term which we use to describe the combination of bacteria, yeast and fungi, that are used to maintain a healthy intestinal biome. There are untold connections between our commensurate bacteria and our overall health. Fermented foods are full of probiotics. A myriad of research has demonstrated how maintaining balances of good and bad bacteria, yeasts and fungi in our guts form the foundation for physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
We like to use food as medicine, Here is a summary of the health benefits of eating fermented foods:
Vitamin Production: – Bacteria in the intestinal tract make some of the B-group of vitamins (Folates, Riboflavin and Vitamin B12) as well as Vitamin K. These vitamins are extremely important to hundreds of reactions in our body. B vitamins are important co factors that convert food (dietary carbs) into fuel (glucose) and help the body use fats and protein. B complex vitamins are needed for healthy skin, hair, eyes, and liver, nervous system function and especially for memory.
No Room for Bad Bacteria – Certain strains of “bad” bacteria cause trouble in our guts, causing diarrhea or releasing toxins and inflammatory agents that effect our bodies from joints and to brains. As well, potential overgrowth of fungus and parasites can negatively affect our gut health and lead to sickness, often disabling proper absorption of nutrients from food. A constant supply of good bacteria from fermented foods will discourage the bad bacteria. This is particularly important for people with a history of antibiotic use, as it tends to kill off the good bacteria, leaving fungus and bad bacteria room to grow.
Improved Immune Function: About 80 percent of our immune system icomes from our gut. Probiotics aid in the production of antibodies like IgA and leukocites like killer T cells – that help us fight off infections!
Detoxification: Fermented foods are some of the best chelators of toxins and heavy metals available. The beneficial bacteria are highly potent detoxifiers, both sequestering toxins and producing co factors for liver function.
Improved Mood and less Depression: Some good bacterial directly produce, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system and the brain. It inhibits nerve transmission in the CNS, calming nervous activity.
Bacteria in the gut have a known influence on neurotransmitter and neuropeptide production. (Neuropeptides are important mediators both within the nervous system and between neurons and other cell types). Oral probiotic microbes can decrease anxiety, diminish perceived stress, and improve mood because of the bacteria contribute to the production of neuropeptides.
Lactobacillus species derived from fermented cabbage produce a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) a co factor which is important to mental function. Low BDNF levels have been associated with depression, dementia, schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Anti-Inflammatory properties: It has been found that to some degree the bacteria in our biome may control inflammation and oxidative stress. As already mentioned, the fermentation process can help release the antioxidants found in the foods that would not otherwise be available, leading to a healthier inflammatory response.
As a Probiotic: In addition to the actual bacteria, fermented foods act as food for bacteria, or prebiotics for our own bacterial populations. For example, isomalto-oligosaccharides are found in miso, and soy sauce and have been shown to have specific benefit in promoting the growth of the good bacterial strains, Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli. Adding a small amount of fermented food to each meal will give you the best benefit, because they can contain 100 times more probiotics than even a good supplement!
Where can I get fermented foods?
Purchasing good well-controlled live culture non-pasteurized fermented foods these days only requires a trip to your local farmers market or healthy grocery stores. Fermented foods of are not usually found on the store shelves but in the refrigerated section, although when done right, they have excellent shelf stability. The Koreans eat a lot of fermented foods, and they have a concept called “hand taste” which comes from your kitchen (vs mouth taste from the store) and there actually seems to be some amplification and strengthening of an individuals biome when they make their own.
The best way to get fermented foods is to make them yourself: A good resource for how to do this is the book called “Fermented” by Jill Ciciarelli, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fermenting Foods” by Warden Harmon or “Wild Fermentation” by Zandor Katz. The Nourished Kitchen website has some fantastic fermentation recipes to help you get started.