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Health AilmentsFermented Foods and Gut Health: What Science Says Today?

Fermented Foods and Gut Health: What Science Says Today?

For eons, fermented foods have been part of many daily diets. Germans have sauerkraut. Koreans, kimchi. And yogurt has been popular in India for over 1000 years. What did these people know about fermented foods and the impact on their health?

Science has now begun to prove the benefits of these interesting and in some cases unusual foods. Research continues to demonstrate the importance of gut health to the overall health of the body.

What Is Gut Health?

Everyone experiences occasional digestive symptoms such as upset stomach, gas, heartburn, constipation, or diarrhea. These discomforts may be caused by infection, bad food, stress, chronic inflammation, or a physical ailment that is affecting the gut.

The intestinal flora known as our microbiome must stay in balance to function properly in absorbing and digesting nutrients from the food we eat. The balance of good organisms in the gut can be thrown off by bad organisms, causing unhealthy symptoms. Eating foods that support the good organisms can help to maintain the health of not only the microbiome but also the entire body.

Research has shown that many fermented foods contain probiotics that support this balance. Probiotics are living microorganisms that are found naturally in fermented foods and are known as good bacteria that prevent bad bacteria from settling in the gut. Many of the microorganisms in probiotic products are the same as or similar to microorganisms that naturally live in our bodies. (1)

What Are Fermented Foods?

These are foods and beverages that have undergone controlled microbial growth and fermentation, an anaerobic process where microorganisms like yeast and bacteria break down food components such as starch and sugars into organic acids, gases, or alcohol. 

Most fermented foods are made from whole foods like vegetables, fruits, grains, and dairy. While these foods are nutritious in their original form, through fermentation they have the potential to carry additional health benefits. The most common organisms responsible for fermentation include yeast in the production of alcoholic beverages, like beer and wine, and the lactic acid bacteria families including Lactobacillus and Streptococcus. This process is referred to as lactic acid fermentation.

For gut health, fermented foods containing probiotic bacteria are the best for daily consumption. Here are 10 examples. 

Yogurt

It is believed yogurt was born some 8,000 years ago when herdsmen began storing their animals’ milk in bags made of animal gut. The intestines contained natural enzymes that caused the milk to curdle and sour. Today, milk is heated and mixed with Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, live bacteria that convert the sugar called lactose to lactic acid. As the mixture cools it thickens. 

Kefir for gut health

Known as drinkable yogurt, it is made by adding kefir grains containing up to 61 strains of bacteria and yeast, to cow, sheep, or goat milk making kefir a far healthier food than most other probiotic dairy products.

Kombucha 

Originating in China over 2000 years ago it is a sweet, fizzy drink made from bacteria, yeast, sugar, and fermented green or black tea. When kombucha ferments it produces a small amount of alcohol. (2)

Tempeh

Often used as a meat substitute, it is created by combining soybeans with a tempeh starter made of live beneficial mold.

Miso

A traditional Japanese food, it is created from soybeans, barley, or brown rice with koji, a type of fungus. 

Kimchi 

A spicy Korean side dish made from salted vegetables such as napa cabbage, carrots, green onions, and Korean radish, and seasonings including chili powder, garlic, and ginger. 

Sauerkraut

Made from cabbage, it is one of the oldest known fermented foods. In addition to the probiotics it offers, it is loaded with fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Sourdough Bread

Homemade sourdough bread uses a probiotic starter that contains wild or naturally occurring Lactobacillus. Studies have found more than 50 species of lactic acid bacteria and more than 20 species of yeast to be living in sourdough starters. (3)

Pickles

Cucumbers canned in vinegar are a good source of lactic acid bacteria. The flavorful, crunchy sour pickles are the healthiest.

Wine

There is some disagreement regarding wine as a probiotic. In a recent study from Spain, researchers isolated 11 strains of bacteria from wine, including Lactobacillus. Sulfated wine is low in probiotics. Natural unsulfated wines may be the answer especially for the increasing number of lactose-intolerant people seeking a non-dairy probiotic alternative. More studies need to be done in this area. (4)

Benefits of Fermented Foods

In addition to supporting gut health, many other benefits have been associated with fermented foods including lowering the risk of cardiovascular disorders, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and inflammation. They have also been linked to better weight management, better mood and brain activity, increased bone health, and better recovery after exercise. (5)

For example, kefirs may help with constipation and eradication of Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria thought to produce stomach ulcers. Kombucha may help fight chronic inflammation. Miso is known to lower the risk of diabetes, fight infections, and lower blood pressure. (5)

Make or Buy Fermented Food

Making some fermented food at home is simple and affordable. It only requires a few ingredients as the bacteria living on the surfaces of most vegetables does the fermenting automatically. Try recipes for sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, or even yogurt. 

When buying fermented foods, aim to purchase organic products that contain “live and active cultures.” Read the labels. Many commercially produced fermented foods are pasteurized, which kills any bacteria along with their associated health benefits.

For those who prefer to buy their probiotics there are numerous companies who offer a variety of products, many of which are organic. One such company is ecoNugenics who has just introduced their botanically-enhanced probiotic formula called ecoProbiotic. It offers dynamic, broad-spectrum support for microbiome balance, healthy gastrointestinal function, and immunity. (6)

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