Fermented Foods for Better Digestive Health and Mental Wellness



Have you noticed the bottles of Kombucha that line the shelves at your natural food grocery stores, or the recent offerings of a drinkable fermented milk product called Kefir?

They fall into a category of fermented foods which are making a huge breakthrough in American grocery stores.

If you are not familiar with fermented foods, or the powerful health benefits that come from adding them to your diet, then this article is for you.

Read on to learn about the 5 simple foods you can incorporate into your diet for both better digestive health and mental wellness.

  • Fermented Foods: A Hot [Ancient] Trend

    If you are just now noticing fermented foods in your grocery store, it’s good to keep in mind that fermented foods are not a new trend.

    They have been around for about eight thousand years and have recently begun to steadily gain popularity in the American diet.

    In fact, due to the explosive research done on gut health and the importance of microbiomes, fermented foods are making huge strides in Western societies.

    Before electricity and refrigerators existed, controlled fermenting was done as a way to preserve foods to make it safe to eat.

    Different cultures celebrated fermented foods, and each culture developed their own spin on them through the introduction of unique flavors and traditions that were part of their culinary heritage.

    For example:

    • European cultures enjoy sauerkraut and cultured dairy products such as sour cream and cheeses

    • Koreans are famous for their kimchi, Japanese people love natto and miso, while the Chinese enjoy blackened preserved eggs

    • In India, people drink Lassi before every meal to aid digestion

    • Garri, a root vegetable, is prepared and fermented before eating in West Africa

    • In Russia and Turkey, people drink a yogurt called Kefir

    Bacteria Makes Food Taste Better

    Although there are many different ways to preserve and ferment foods, they all contain a specific component that are important to the fermenting preservation process, a bacterial starter culture.

    The most common method of fermentation uses a bacteria strain called Lactobacillius.

    During the fermentation process, these good bacteria fight off dangerous strains of bacteria like E. coli that make our food dangerous to eat.

    Lactobacillus converts the salts and sugars that were added during the fermentation setup into lactic acid, a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of dangerous bacteria. This production of lactic acid is what gives food that sour, tangy flavor that we associate with fermented vegetables such as pickles and sauerkraut.

    You can use the liquid from a previous ferment as a source for your starter bacteria, such as the whey for yogurt, a SCOBY from kombucha, or the brine from pickled vegetables.

    If you are just starting out, you can also find healthy strains of bacteria in powder form. Health food stores or shops online will sell starter culture kits that are full of beneficial bacteria to help you kick start the fermentation process.

    Ferments are Great for Your Gut

    Eating a variety of fermented foods is a great introduction to enriching your gut microbiome to a diverse collection of healthy bacteria.

    Not only are you introducing beneficial bacteria to your gut but these bacteria are helping you to increase absorption and digestion of foods.

    Fermented foods are similar to probiotics, but there are a few key differences.

    Probiotics Versus Ferments: What’s The Difference?

    Fermented foods are not equivalent to probiotics.

    Based on their classifications there are differences between a probiotic versus a fermented food, even though both have incredible health benefits.

    The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”. [1]

    All fermented products are created using healthy bacteria, but when they are cooked, they won’t contain live bacteria.

    For example, foods such as sour dough bread are fermented because they rely on bacteria like yeast to create them. But by the time you eat the bread the yeast already has already been deactivated by baking.

    On the other hand, there are foods such as yogurt, cheeses, non-heated kimchi and sauerkraut that are fermented with bacteria and still contain live beneficial bacteria when you eat it.

    These types of fermented foods are also probiotics because they have live microorganisms in them.

    A Healthy Gut Is a Diverse Gut

    There are ten times more bacteria in your body than you have cells that make up your body; or as scientists estimate, there are about 100 trillion bacteria in your body.

    Millions reside right in the middle of your gut; and, they help you digest your food and absorb nutrients from your food.

    Bacteria in your gut help you break down larger food particles (that go undigested in your stomach) into useable forms of fuel that your body can use.

    This symbiotic relationship we have with bacteria means that both parties benefit: you get the vitamins and nutrients necessary for your survival and in return the bacteria have food to eat and a place to live.

    This population of bacteria is called the human microbiota, and studies have shown that the composition of the bacteria population plays an important role in how well you extract, store, and use the energy from the foods you eat. This relationship is important in helping our digestive development of our intestines, helping us produce vitamins that we cannot obtain from food, and it impacts how we metabolize medications.

    Because bacteria plays a role in digestion and absorption of nutrition, early research studies are speculating that different strains of bacteria also play a role in our body compositions. This may determine whether we are predisposed to have a lean body type or an obese body type.

    A healthy gut is important to the health and well-being of our bodies.

    By eating a variety of healthy foods including fermented ones we can ensure that we are populating our guts with good bacteria.

    Nature’s Miracle Cure

    The diversity of your gut bacteria also helps to develop your immune system.

    Since birth, your immune system has developed by relying on gut bacteria to balance the responses to harmful pathogens while tolerating the harmless bacteria that reside within you.

    Research within this area is quite new and we are still learning what a healthy gut microbiome looks like; but, evidence suggests that having a more diversified microbiome leads to better overall health.

    An unhealthy diversity of gut bacteria has been linked to many diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune diseases, and a leaky gut which causes unwanted inflammation.

    There has been preliminary research that has found that the effectiveness of vaccines is also determined by the diversity of your gut bacteria.

    When you have gut inflammation and other gut issues your immune system is busy dealing with that issue instead of responding to vaccines effectively. [2]

    You can help ensure you have a healthy gut and a diverse microbiome through eating a healthy, varied diet that includes fermented foods. It’s a quick way to introduce millions of beneficial bacteria in a single bite.

    How Your Microbiome Affects Your Mood

    In the past 10 years research has been done investigating the link between your microbiome and how it regulates your thinking and your moods.

    Researchers have found evidence that these billions of bacteria residing in your gut could play a role by influencing the brain to determine your mood.

    Gut bacteria have been found to produce a variety of neurotransmitters that play a key role in affecting how you feel.

    How we metabolize these neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA can be affected depending on what type of organism resides in our gut. This can regulate the amount of neurotransmitters that circulate in our blood and brain. [3]

    A healthy mind and body consists of having a wide variety of different species of bacteria residing in your gut. Wanting to feel good is another reason to eat a variety of fermented foods, as each food will have different types of bacteria that will contribute to the health of your gut.

    Eat These Five Ferments for Fabulous Health

    1. Kombucha

    This is probably one of the easiest way to diversify your gut because Kombucha is accessible to almost everyone and it comes in a large variety of flavors.

    Kombucha is a non-alcoholic fermented tea drink that is lightly sweetened. It originated in China around 220 BC.

    It has become a trendy drink because it contains vitamins, amino acids, and other nutrients that are associated with health benefits. Although there have been exaggerated claims on its health benefits by the media, it’s a great way to introduce beneficial bacteria to help aid digestion.

    2. Miso

    Originated in Japan, miso is a fermented paste that is made from a combination of soybeans and salt with other ingredients such as rice or barley to create different flavors.

    Miso comes in a variety of colors based on how long it’s allowed to ferment. By itself, it tastes very salty and tangy but has a great umami flavor. Because of the huge varieties of miso, different types can be used interchangeably in recipes and result in different flavor combinations.

    Although it is commonly used in miso soup, miso can also be used as a base to create salad dressings, sauces, and marinades.

    Miso can be found near the tofu section or the vegetarian meat section of your health food store. It will come in a plastic tub or a sealed plastic bag. When refrigerated properly, miso can be kept fresh for up to a year.

    3. Kimchi

    Another fermented staple is Kimchi, which originates from Korea; it consists of a variety of pickled vegetables that are eaten at every meal.

    The most well-known one is of spicy kimchi cabbage, but there are over 100 kimchi varieties, and not all of them are spicy.

    Kimchi is fermented with an assortment of spices including chili powder, garlic, ginger, scallions, and type of salted seafood called jeotgal. In addition to the probiotic benefits of kimchi, it is also high in fiber, loaded with antioxidants, rich in amino acids and packed with a range of vitamins.

    4. Sauerkraut

    Sauerkraut is another version of a fermented cabbage that is created by a variety of lactic acid producing bacteria. It gets its distinct sour flavor from bacteria fermenting the sugar in the cabbage.

    Although we associate sauerkraut with a Eastern European and German origin, it was consumed by the Chinese over 2,000 years ago and likely brought over to Europe 1,000 years later.

    Today sauerkraut is made by combining finely chopped cabbage with salt and spices. It is an excellent source of Vitamin B and Vitamin C and contains lots of enzymes to help you break down your food during digestion.

    5. Kefir

    Keifr is a fermented milk drink that can come from a variety sources of milk, such cow, goat, sheep or even rice and soy milk.

    What makes this drink fermented is the introduction of starter grains that are composed of yeast and bacteria.

    Originating from the Caucasus Mountains, a mountainous region that divides Asia and Europe, it is now being introduced into American supermarkets.

    Many consider Kefir to be a super power version of yogurt because it’s full of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and probiotics. Containing about 30 different strains of bacteria, Kefir is a potent probiotic source of diverse microorganisms–even more so than the typical yogurt.

    If you’re experiencing digestion issues, drinking kefir can help you restore the friendly gut bacteria to balance out your system for a happier digestive tract.

    Fermented Foods For All!

    Fermented foods have been around for thousands of years and offer a multitude of health benefits. Whether you are a small child or an older adult, fermented foods are an excellent choice to establish better overall health. Plus, they taste amazing.

    When it comes to overall health and general wellbeing don’t forget the importance of having a healthy gut.

    Eating a variety of fermented foods, such as the ones listed above, will put you on the fast track to having a healthier digestion.

    Featured photo credit: Pixabay via pixabay.com

    Reference

    [1] ESNM: Diet & Gut Microbiota
    [2] Science Direct: Trends in Immunology
    [3] The Atlantic: When Gut Bacteria Change Brain Function

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