In today’s society--and with the current overwhelm of processed foods--it’s not only essential to include fermented foods in your diet, but it can also prevent a wealth of digestive issues and subsequent inflammatory responses. Most people believe that a small cup of yogurt will do the trick in combating unhealthy microflora in the gut, however there needs to be more balance within the week regarding what foods are considered healthy and what foods might have too many other unwanted ingredients.
Yes, having plain, unflavored yogurt and kefir (if you aren’t sensitive to dairy proteins)is a good thing. But it’s not the end-all to a lifelong journey of overall health. Before getting into the why’s of fermented foods, let’s take a peek at how the gut operates and what is necessary to bring about internal and healthy balance to your system.
What’s so special about fermentation?
For starters, if too much backlog occurs within your gut, it’s not only super painful to deal with, but the clog can launch several other inflammatory responses that could be troublesome down the road. In fact, by including fermented foods to your diet, you are adding beneficial bacteria and enzymes to your overall intestinal flora--thereby increasing the health of your gut microbiome and digestive system, and enhancing your immune system.
Fermented foods are extremely rich in probiotic bacteria. As some of the sugars and starches in food have been broken down through the process, fermented foods are easier to digest. For example, fermentation breaks down the lactose in milk to simpler sugars – glucose and galactose – which, if you are lactose intolerant, can make products such as yogurt and cheese potentially easier to digest.
Also, fermentation can increase the availability of vitamins and minerals for our bodies to absorb. By boosting the beneficial bacteria in your gut, you are promoting their ability to manufacture B vitamins and synthesize vitamin K, a nutrient that the body needs to stay healthy. A large proportion of the immune system is housed in the gut. By consuming probiotic-rich foods, you are supporting the mucosa--gut lining--as a natural barrier, making the immune system more robust.
A lack of beneficial bacteria allows disease-causing microbes to grow inciting inflammation in the gut wall. If you have recently been prescribed a course of antibiotics for any ailment, injury, or severe illness, probiotic foods are particularly helpful to ease the overload of antibiotics. Furthermore, Some natural compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients can be removed by the fermentation process.
As such, phytic acid--which is found in legumes and seeds--binds minerals such as iron and zinc, reducing their absorption when eaten. Yet, phytic acid can be broken down during fermentation so the minerals become available.
Regarding mood and the mind, it’s valuable to understand how the gut and the brain are linked through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The gut is lined with neurons that can influence our emotions and feelings. Serotonin, for example, is a neurotransmitter involved in mood and is made in the gut. Evidence has shown that as probiotic bacteria contribute to a healthy gut, they are also linked to a healthy mind.
The must-eat fermented foods for a healthy gut
To boost immunity, promote a healthy weight, and improve digestion, these are the foods that can get you there:
- Sauerkraut - Solely made from fresh cabbage and salt, sauerkraut is a healthy dose of probiotics and fiber. You can make your own at home or buy homemade at your local farmers market (best options), or buy a commercially-made version at your local grocery store. A word to the wise--the refrigerated kind will have more probiotics than shelf-stable or canned varieties.
- Kimchi - A Korean version of sauerkraut, kimchi is a rather spicy cabbage dish. It tends to be in the refrigerated section of most markets and is typically added as a topper for many traditional Asian meals.
- Kefir - This tastes as though it’s drinkable yogurt, however kefir has twice the calcium and probiotics that yogurt includes in its ingredient panel. The probiotics in kefir help to break down lactose, so it’s easier to digest for those who suffer from lactose intolerance. By itself or in smoothies, kefir is an exceptional addition to your healthy diet of strengthening gut flora.
- Kombucha - Almost as if you’re having a typical soft drink without all the additives and preservatives, kombucha is a tangy, effervescent tea--typically black or green--that's rich in good-for-you yeast and bacteria. The drink is often flavored with herbs or fruit, and most high quality kombucha drinks are found in natural foods stores, farmers' markets and your regular grocery store. Always check the Nutrition Facts panel on the bottle for sugar content, as many companies add way too much sugar to their formulas. Opt for kombucha that is sweetened with stevia if you must have sweetness to limit the extra sugar.
- Yogurt - Branded with the statements “live and active cultures,” yogurt is made with fermented milk. There are about 17 billion cultures in a six ounce cup. The probiotics in yogurt help digest some of the lactose--which is essentially, milk sugar--so if you're lactose intolerant you may be able to enjoy yogurt. Plus, many companies are now making dairy-free and vegan yogurt options that contain probiotics. Just be sure to buy it plain and unflavored because the added sugar will overturn the probiotic benefits.
Microbiota’s role in your gut
The fundamentals to your health is extremely dependent on the equilibrium between bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and other microorganisms that populate your intestines. Did you know that more than 100,000 billion microorganisms live in our gastrointestinal tract? Gut flora has improved over the years, specifically those who study the actual DNA that gathers in our intestines.
The large intestine, also called the colon, can have as many as 10 thousand billion bacteria living within your body, which is all determined by the number of cells in your body. This means that your colon is one of the most densely populated ecosystems in the world. Therefore, microbiota is unique for each individual.
Although microbiota can be deliberately regulated through fermented foods and how often you eat or drink them, it’s vital to ingest these healthy foods with a dose of intelligence to ensure the harmonious relationship between your bacteria and your intestine, as your health depends on it.
Over the decades, our nutritional options continue to be a challenge, yet knowing what to choose and how much you need is just as crucial as adhering to the requirements of true bodily wellness. A healthy gut contributes to a strong immune system, heart health, brain health, improved mood, healthy sleep, and effective digestion, and it may help prevent some cancers and autoimmune diseases.These factors alone prove that eating a weekly diet of the above optimal fermented foods will enhance your system and prevent chronic illness.
It’s time to drink up the good bubbly of kombucha, eat up the smooth tastes of yogurt and kefir, and savor the delights of kimchi and sauerkraut! Your gut will thank you.