Fermented foods have exploded (in some cases literally) onto the shelves of health food stores and even some mainstream convenience stores. Many cafes and restaurants are embracing the unique flavour profiles of these often mysterious foods and drink items. With names like kombucha, jun, kefir and crazy alive giant mushroom looking SCOBYS that brew away in cool looking glass and ceramic crocks, hipsters are all over it. But these curious fermented foods aren’t anything new- in fact most of the traditional ferments pre-date historical records. Fermenting started out as food preservation, and according to records it was the humble cabbage, transformed by the microbial wonders and turned into a preserved nutrient dense vitamin C rich sauerkraut that kept Captain Cook’s fleet free from scurvy whilst on their expedition. Since the advent of refrigeration however, many of these fermented foods have fallen by the way side, until recently when they have jumped back on the scene in a flurry, and for good reason…
Why Your ‘Gut-Feeling’ Is Probably Right
Mainstream medicine has caught on to how important the health of our gut flora is (now known as the gut microbiota) and the balance of the tens of trillion microorganisms weighing in at up to 2Kg(!) that reside in our gut. These microorganisms outweigh the number of human cells by 10 fold and incredibly, there is over 150 times more microbial DNA on and in us than there is human DNA.
Here are a couple more impressive gut flora facts:
- 80% of our immune system is found in the lining of the gut wall
- Around 90% of serotonin and at least 50% of dopamine (touted as the feel good chemicals) are produced right in the gut – not the brain. Hence the expression ‘food affects mood’, and why we see links between food and depression and anxiety – essentially mood related disorders with gastrointestinal overlap.
Looking at the neurology of the gut there’s even significantly more nerve cells that populate the gut than the spinal cord, hence where the sayings such as ‘gut-feelings’ and ‘trust your gut’ probably originated from.
So what do all these microorganisms do? They protect the delicate lining of the gut, control inflammation, immune regulation, synthesise vitamins and substrates for energy production. In addition, microorganisms assist with the digestion assimilation and abruption of food, cholesterol metabolism- all critical functions to a healthy digestive system.
The magic power of microorganisms (& how they can change your life)
Where do fermented foods fit into the picture? Foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, beet kvass contain an abundance of these beneficial microorganisms which help build up the gut microbiota diversity and help combat against some of the less desirable pathogenic organisms. These benefits can go even beyond the probiotic content, with specific fermented foods possessing additional nutritional value. For example, one of the most profound effects fermented cabbage has over its raw form is the chemicals that are made bioavailable and exert quite powerful estrogenic detoxification effects (and thus anticancer properties). Sauerkraut contains compounds called indoles, which have been shown to help detoxify excess oestrogen and have implications with cancer prevention. What’s interesting is that these specific indoles are NOT found in the raw cabbage- they are specifically the product of the fermenting process. Similarly, beet kvass contains betanidin and betanin (not present in non-fermented beetroot juice) which have antioxidant effects. In addition, fermented foods are somewhat pre-digested which in turn makes it a lot easier on the digestive tract.
When you consider the fact that most people consume 3-6 meals day in day, the digestive system has a lot of work to do breaking down food for absorption, so consuming fermented foods is one way of easing that burden.
How to kickstart your fermented foods routine
So where should you start? My best advice is to start slow and steady with fermented foods: they are powerful and less can be more. A simple 30mL shot of beet kvass and teaspoon or so of sauerkraut with your meal is most likely sufficient. If you are finding that you consistently have adverse reactions to fermented foods such as excess bloating, gas, cramps, or skin outbreaks then it may be a good indication to have a holistic practitioner look deeper into what may be going on in your gut.