Show Your Gut Some LOVE with Fermented Foods

I’m a big fan of fermented foods — not just because they can taste amazingly good, but also because of their numerous gut, brain and immune health benefits.

Why love your gut?

  • 70% of your immune system comes from your gut.
  • 90% of serotonin is made in the gut lining. Gut bacteria produce both GABA and serotonin — two of the major neurotransmitters for mood and anxiety.
  • We can lose our natural gut bacteria due to taking antibiotics and consuming pesticide residues and preservatives in our food.
  • The best ways to rebuild your gut microbiome are to eat fermented foods and lots of colorful, fresh vegetables and fruits because they feed the “good” bacteria that boost our immune systems and our moods.

You’ve probably been seeing more articles about the microbiome lately. This is the world of the trillions of microorganisms that live on us and inside of us — on our skin, in our guts and even inside of our cells. In fact, the number of microorganisms in our bodies outnumber human cells by 10 to 1!

I won’t go into great detail about the microbiome here, because I want to get to the good stuff of fermented foods. But if you scroll down below the list, I provide a bit of background on why eating foods that contain beneficial microorganisms is so important in building and maintaining our health.

Here are a few of my favorites. Try adding them to your diet and you’ll discover a whole range of wonderful flavors while you are helping your body stay healthy. In addition to their microbial benefits, I’ll list a few of the health benefits that have been associated with each as well. This is by no means an exhaustive list or a scientific paper, but I can point you to my sources if you are interested in learning more.

NOTE: I’m not talking about wine here, that’s another article. I’m talking about foods that contain living probiotic microorganisms that help feed and replenish the microbiome in your gut.

Probiotic & Fermented Foods

Most cultural traditions from around the world have some sort of cultured and fermented foods as staples of their diets because they enabled people to keep and preserve foods for longer periods of time without refrigeration.

If you purchase any of these foods at a store, go for organic whenever possible. And be sure you purchase the kind that doesn’t have preservatives in it (preservatives are there to kill bacteria, and in high quality fermented foods, the fermentation kills the “bad” bacteria and preserves the beneficial ones). Traditionally fermented foods have very few ingredients — often just the food itself, probiotic cultures and a bit of sugar or salt.

Kombucha

This is worth a try if you’ve never had some. A probiotic drink, kombucha is a slightly fizzy, fermented tea. Most of the caffeine is gone, it usually tastes nothing like tea and it does maintain a tiny amount of alcohol (check the label). There are lots of brands and lots of flavors, usually fruity. Again, look for the types that are lower in sugar. And if you don’t like one, try other brands. It’s a great substitute for soda and for wine — some varieties have a distinctly adult beverage flavor to them.

  • Shown to be helpful in fighting infections from “bad” bacteria
  • Some research indicates it might be helpful in preventing diabetes
  • Protective of the liver

Yogurt

This is the probiotic food most of us think of immediately. Just watch out, most store brand yogurts contain a lot of sugar and many don’t contain nearly as many beneficial bacteria as they claim. Go for whole milk yogurt (not non-fat) that has a minimum of ingredients and as little sugar as possible. I personally love goat yogurt. Even if you don’t like goat milk, give this a try. I add a bit of sweetness and use it for desserts and fruit or I add a bit of salt and use it to thicken and add creaminess to salty dishes.

  • Goat yogurt is easier to digest for people with intolerances to cow dairy
  • Can aid in weight loss
  • Shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes (as long as you avoid the highly sweetened stuff)

Kefir

It’s like a drinkable yogurt, but the bacteria in kefir are a bit different. Some say it has a lot more health benefits than yogurt. It’s also easy to make at home.

  • High in protein
  • Lots of vitamins and minerals — particularly calcium and potassium, vitamins A and D
  • Shown to reduce the incidence of colitis flares
  • Supports immune health

Sauerkraut

I recently tried making my own at home — it’s much easier than you might think! There are lots of great recipes out there.

  • Aids the liver and kidneys
  • Has enzymes that help your body with detoxification
  • Has been associated with lower levels of certain cancers

Kimchi

This Asian cousin of sauerkraut often contains other fermented vegetables as well. Some like it hot, but don’t be afraid because you’ve heard it’s always that way. There are hundreds of different kinds of kimchi and many are not spicy at all.

  • Shown to improve cholesterol levels
  • Can have positive effects on blood pressure
  • Chock full of vitamins and minerals

Miso

You’ve probably had miso soup as a starter in Japanese restaurants. But there’s a lot more to miso. It comes as a thick paste that’s great for cooking a variety of dishes. I stir it in with vegetables and have used it as a seasoning for meats as well. And you can’t beat the soup!

  • Rich in essential minerals and vitamins
  • Acts as an antioxidant
  • Has been shown in studies to help reduce cholesterol
  • Protective against liver and breast cancers.

Tamari

This traditional Japanese version of soy sauce is usually made without wheat (many people don’t know that traditional shoyu soy sauce is made with both wheat and soy, so if you’re avoiding gluten, tamari is a great alternative). It was traditionally made from the liquid that runs off miso as it matures. And I like the flavor better than soy sauce!

  • Rich in minerals and some vitamins
  • Contains much less salt than traditional soy sauce
  • Aids in the digestion of fruits and vegetables

Tempeh

This protein-rich food has a firm texture and nice flavor that makes it a good meat substitute. I like to slice it and sauté it with tamari. It’s great in stir fry or anything you might use ground beef for. It also makes a good “fakin’bacon.”

  • Very high in protein
  • High in vitamins, minerals and amino acids
  • Good source of calcium
  • Great antioxidant, shown to reduce free radicals

Sourdough Bread

Yep, it’s bread! It’s different from other breads because sourdough is yeast-free — it’s made with a bacterial culture that is, quite literally, captured from the air. Though some bakers have used their personal “sourdough starter” for many years, sourdough can take on different flavors depending on the location where it’s made and the bacteria that are in the air. Cool huh?

  • Shown to have a lower glycemic response than other breads
  • Fights free radicals
  • Increases the ability for your body to digest dietary fiber and magnesium

Most of these foods can be safely made at home with relatively few ingredients. They take time and patience. I’ve just begun experimenting with making my own fermented foods and it’s fun!

Now to geek out just a little bit…

With recent advances in DNA research, scientists are beginning to unlock the many secrets of the microbiome. It’s exciting. And it’s also unveiling some sad stories, because since the advent of antibiotics — which have saved and continue to save many lives by killing dangerous bacteria — we’ve also inadvertently killed many of our beneficial microbes. These are microbes that help maintain our immune systems, produce neurotransmitters (mental and emotional health) and the digestion of nutrients from our food. Antibiotics — and particularly their over-use — has resulted in the microbial equivalent of dropping a bomb on a city to kill the enemy and killing all the innocent inhabitants too.

Add to that the widespread use of pesticides and herbicides on our food (many of which kill beneficial microorganisms) and the preservatives in our foods (which are also there to kill or prevent the growth of microbes like bacteria) and what we end up with is a body that’s missing many of the species of beneficial microorganisms that have helped us live healthy lives for millennia. We’ve stopped the acute infections and ended up stoking a range of chronic illnesses in the process.

Because the health of the gut microbiome is associated with so many other functions in our bodies, maintaining a healthy population of good bacteria in the gut can be beneficial throughout the body. Two ways to help you grow and maintain a healthier gut microbiome are:

1) Feed. Eat lots of colorful vegetables and fruits — not only are they chock full of healthy phytonutrients that boost our health in other ways, they also contain fiber and prebiotics that feed your gut bacteria.

2) Replenish. Consume foods that contain healthy probiotics that help our gut grow and maintain colonies of good bacteria. (We’re not talking about probiotic supplements here, we’re talking about real, whole foods with their microbes intact.)

And that’s where the fermented foods come in.

So give your gut some love. Your microbiome will thank you!

Jennifer

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