When I first heard about how good fermented food is for me, I thought, “Great! More wine, please!” but I didn’t really understand what she meant.
I was attending a lecture given by a holistic nutritionist at a weekend yoga retreat. As with most good lectures, she said some things I already knew–this was 8 years ago but I was already a food nerd–and introduced some things I didn’t know. She even said some things I didn’t agree with, which caused me to give her a “crazy lady” label in my head at the time, but I have since revisited some of these opinions several times.
Anyway, she was talking about things we should eat every day and fermented food was one of them. Unfortunately, she didn’t really explain what she meant by “fermented food” all that well. I was sitting there considering how living cultures could possibly survive in pasteurized beer and she was talking about lacto-fermented pickles. Of course, I knew about yogurt, but at the time I hadn’t ever made my own. The yogurt available at the retreat was homemade, though, and I think I experimented my first batch as soon as I got home.
Fermenting foods is freaky. Our culture is so germaphobic that the simple act of leaving something on the counter or in a warm environment for 24 hours to four days is unthinkable. Especially dairy products. It goes against every rule about food safety we learned growing up. But when growing bacteria is the goal the rules are different.
Cleanliness and the one-percenters
When did this ultra cleanliness start anyway? I’m just generating random thoughts here, but I suppose it happened when we moved from the country to the city. On the farm, things aren’t quite so clean. Kids played in the dirt, food was grown and processed at home, the cow was milked by hand…
We don’t have to be so clean. In fact, the cleanliness of our modern lifestyle is a bit of a problem. I cringe whenever someone gives my kid hand sanitizer. I know it happens at school all the time–and I don’t blame them with all of those kids running around with snotty noses and shoelaces dragging on the bathroom floor–but we don’t use such things in our house. The reason being, we are, as humans, well adapted to deal with outside invaders. Unless we kill the army protecting us with hand sanitizer, cosmetics, antibacterial soap, and all the rest of the wipes and sprays we subject ourselves to every day.
The bad bacteria that we are so keen to kill are one-percenters. Just like how dangerous biker gangs are 1% of motorcycle culture, dangerous bacteria are 1% of the culture living in our bodies. We need the good bacteria living in and on us to survive. We are in a symbiotic relationship with them. Our skin has a microbiome just like the one in our gut, so do our nasal passages and respiratory tract, our eyes, and vagina. In fact, all of these communities are friends and trade information. When these populations are healthy, we are healthy. If they are struggling, we struggle. Sometimes in surprising ways.
Emerging research suggests that microbiota have a major influence on our mood, our choices, even our behaviors. If our little gut buddies are struggling, like after a round of antibiotics or a gastrointestinal infection, the information sent from the gut to the brain isn’t favorable. I know that if I don’t eat the right foods, my creativity, focus, and motivation all crash and I end up in a funk. Also, 90% of our serotonin is produced and stored in our gut lining, so that’s a big deal. Our immune system is hugely affected by our gut as well. Not only is the intestinal tract part of our front-line defense, immune cells attend boot camp in the gut, learning what is self and not self among the indigenous microbiota. So, that’s important as well.
Over the years I have figured out what my little gut buddies like and don’t like, and can usually stay at the top of my game. Because each and every one of us has a different population of microbes, each of us requires different foods to keep these guys happy. However, there are some foods that are pretty universally helpful for our microbiota and fermented food is one of them.
We’ll get to what other foods are helpful in a minute but first, let’s talk about fermented food and probiotics. Fermented foods are an excellent source of probiotics–which is a fancy word for “good bacteria”. Here’s the thing, probiotics that we ingest as adults, whether they come from fermented foods or a supplement, don’t actually become part of our permanent microbiota. They have been raised on their perfect food in their perfect environment at a temperature and pH in which they thrive and they largely die when subjected to the assault of our digestive process. If the probiotics adults eat actually do make it down to the large intestine, they have been through so much that they don’t last long. Young kids have a shorter digestive tract and do add to their microbiota population and diversity by eating probiotics, but only up to about age 8.
So why do probiotics matter for adults? Probiotics temporarily take some of the stress off of your existing bacterial population, making it easier for our own bugs to reproduce and work more effectively. They change the metabolites produced by our little gut buddies, which changes how effectively our gut operates. Probiotics make our microbiota happy, which in turn make us happy, better able to defend ourselves, and more resilient in general.
Excellent sources of probiotics are:
- Fermented vegetables
- Pickles (lacto-fermented without vinegar, they have to be refrigerated)
- Sauerkraut (also, no vinegar)
- Veggie medleys
- Try making your own. It’s fun! Here’s a good resource.
- Unpasteurized microbrew beer or artisan wine
- Yogurt (look for kinds with no added sugar or make it yourself)
- Kefir (milk or coconut water-based with no added sugar)
- Kombucha (look for a kind low in sugar)
- Commercially raised probiotics in pill, powder, or liquid form (quality varies widely)
Fermented foods also tend to be a great source of PREbiotics. Prebiotics are food for probiotics. Our little gut buddies live in our large intestine, which is waaaaay far down our digestive tract. The small intestine digests and absorbs most of the nutrients found in food. The only sources of nutrients that make it down to the large intestine are fiber and resistant starch. This is what feeds the livestock in our bellies. Different prebiotics feed different strains of bacteria. Since bacterial diversity is what counts most in gut health, getting a wide range of prebiotics every day is important.
Excellent sources of prebiotics are:
- Chicory root
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Raw asparagus
- Raw garlic
- Under-ripe (green) bananas
- Raw dandelion greens
- Raw jicama
- Cooked and cooled white rice or potatoes
- Some whole grains (not flour, actual whole grains sprouted and cooked)
- Commercially available supplements (quality varies greatly)
- Bonus points if you ferment asparagus and jicama!
- Fun fact: Breast milk contains a prebiotic called Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMOs). It is specifically beneficial for the type of bacteria that is most commonly present in newborn babies–which happens to be the kind they picked up from their mum’s vagina on the way out!
If you find this useful, there’s a good chance your friends will, too. Share this with your friends right away while you are thinking of it. Thanks for reading!
Mayer, Emeran, M.D. The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health. (2016) Harper Collins. New York, NY.
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