Naturopathic medicine emphasizes evidence-based medicine, and fermented food has had its share of good research showing how powerful it is for our health. As scientists continue to uncover health-promoting properties of ancestral diets (for example, the Mediterranean diet, the traditional Japanese diet, and hunter-gatherer diets), they have discovered that the fermented foods eaten in these ancient diets may me one of the reasons these diets are so good for overall health and wellbeing. But before we get into that…lets talk a bit about this process called fermentation.
What is Fermentation? The most basic definition of fermentation is that it is the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms.
Why is Fermentation good for our health?
· The process of fermentation on a food actually helps to break down that food and release various nutrients, vitamins, and important minerals that we need for optimal health. The ability for our stomach to do this from raw unfermented foods actually decreases as we age so this is just one reason why fermented foods are so important for our health - they are more bioavailable and nutrient rich.
· The bacteria in fermented foods (which we will talk later in this article) help produce vitamins and nutrients essential for our health.
· Finally fermented foods provide our body with a constant supply of the good bacteria (ex. Lactobaccilus) – which is critical to helping, protect our stomach from bad bacteria and establishing proper gut health.
What are examples of Fermented foods? A lot of food that we love to eat is fermented. Olives, yogurts, cheeses, pickles, wine, beer and sauerkraut all are fermented foods. However as I will explain, even if you buy these products at your grocery store, they may not have the benefits of a fermented food due to the chemicals and pasteurization methods that destroy all the good bacteria that would normally be found in a well-controlled fermented food.
Why are non-pasteurized fermented foods not really part of our diets today? Even though fermented foods are so good for us we actually rarely eat them. This statement may puzzle you because you likely consume many of the foods mentioned above. However as the food industry developed it was found to be cheaper, less time consuming and better for shelf life for companies to opt to preserve foods with chemicals. For example – Olive or pickles can be made in salt-free brines by using an acidic solution of lactic acid, acetic acid, sodium benzoate, and potassium sorbate, which is a much different process than the natural lactic-acid fermenting method of salt alone.
Industrial processes such as refrigeration, high-heat pasteurization, and vinegar's acidic pH all slow or halt the fermentation and enzymatic processes - disabling the health benefits. Pasteurization meant high heating to kill bacteria in our foods. Thus the age of good quality fermented foods ended. Sadly in my opinion this has definitely compromised our health – because pasteurization of fermented food meant the loss of large amounts of good bacteria, (Probiotics). We are not getting enough good bacteria - one of the main health benefits of fermented foods.
What are Probiotics?
It becoming increasingly clear that there are untold connections between our resident bacteria and our overall health. Fermented foods are full of probiotics or good bacteria. A myriad of research has demonstrated how the ideal balances of good and bad bacteria in our guts form the foundation for physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
· Fermented foods As Medicine: Here is a summary of the health benefits of eating fermented foods:
· Vitamin Production: – It has been shown that bacteria in the stomach make some of the B-group of vitamins (Folates, Riboflavin and Vitamin B12) and Vitamin K. These vitamins are extremely important to hundreds of reactions in our body. The B vitamins (namely Vitamin B12), also called cobalamin, is one of 8 B vitamins. All B vitamins help the body convert food (carbohydrates) into fuel (glucose), which is used to produce energy. These B vitamins, often referred to as B complex vitamins, also help the body use fats and protein. B complex vitamins are needed for healthy skin, hair, eyes, and liver. B12 also help the nervous system function properly and is especially important for memory.
· No Room for Bad Bacteria – Certain strains of “bad” bacteria reek havoc in our stomachs causing diarrhea or releasing toxins and inflammatory agents that effect our joint and our brains. As well an overgrowth of fungus and parasites’ compromise our gut health and make us sick often disabling proper absorption of nutrients from food. A constant supply of good bacteria from fermented foods will overrun the bad bacteria. This leads to much less stomach issues. This is particularly important for people with a history of a lot of antibiotic use - as it tends to kill off the good bacteria, leaving fungus and bad bacteria room to grow.
· Improved Immune Function: An estimated 80 percent of your immune system is actually located in your gut. Probiotics aid in the production of antibodies namely killer T cells - that help us fight off infections!
· Detoxification: Fermented foods are some of the best chelators available. The beneficial bacteria in these foods are highly potent detoxifiers, capable of drawing out a wide range of toxins and heavy metals.
· Cost-Effectiveness.: Adding a small amount of fermented food to each meal will give you the biggest bang for your buck. Why? Because they can contain 100 times more probiotics than a supplement!
· Anti-Inflammatory properties: It has been found that to some degree the bacteria in our stomach may control inflammation and oxidative stress. As well, we mentioned the fermentation process can help release the antioxidants found in the foods - that would not otherwise be bioavailable. This lead to less inflammation.
· Fermented Foods Nourish Our Own Good Bacteria - We also have our own supply of good bacteria in our stomach already. Fermented foods act as “bacteria food” called “prebiotics” for our own probiotics. For example, isomalto-oligosaccharides are found in traditional fermented foods (for example miso, and soy sauce) and have been shown in animals and human beings to have a beneficial effect in promoting the growth of good bacteria Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli.
The Brain-Bacteria Connection:
This health benefit needs special mention. I have always wondered why so many of my patients with depression have stomach problems. Emerging studies show that the intestinal barrier may be compromised in patients with depression. There is evidence now that beneficial microbes can influence mood or fatigue. For instance – some good bacterial directly produce, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is an amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system affecting the brain. It inhibits nerve transmission in the brain, calming nervous activity. As a supplement it is sold and promoted for these neurotransmitter effects as a natural tranquilizer. Researchers suspect that GABA may boost mood or have a calming, relaxing effect on the nervous system. Why pay for GABA if perhaps the good bacteria that should normally be in your stomach are not there - eating fermented foods can improve the situation!
Apparently bacteria in the stomach have an indirect influence on neurotransmitter and neuropeptide production. (Neuropeptides are important mediators both within the nervous system and between neurons and other cell types) Preliminary placebo-controlled human studies have shown that oral probiotic microbes can decrease anxiety, diminish perceptions of stress, and improve mental outlook and it believed because of the bacteria make neuropeptides.
Another great example of the bacteria brain connection is the recent finding by researchers showing that a good bacteria called Lactobacillus pentosus derived from fermented cabbage (Kimchi) can improve mental functioning, by producing a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). Low BDNF levels have been associated with depression, dementia, schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder. We are just touching the surface of the connection that good probiotics - particularly ones found in fermented foods can provide. I am sure that it is only a matter of time more before everyone knows how important good bacteria are for our mental wellbeing.
Where can I get fermented foods?
Getting your hands on good well-controlled live culture non-pasteurized fermented foods takes a bit of research. My suggestion is to ask around at your local health foods stores and follow their suggestions. Fermented foods of this kind are not usually found on the store shelves but are made by specialty companies like Hamutzei Tzfat. The best solution…is to make some fermented foods yourself: A good resource for how to do this is the book called “Fermented” by Jill Ciciarelli, “The Complete Idiot's Guide to Fermenting Foods” by Warden Harmon or “Fermentation for Beginners: The Step-by-Step Guide to Fermentation and Probiotic Foods”, by Drakes Press.
Conclusion: Start Eating Fermented Foods:
I hope that this article has convinced you to start adding some live cultured fermented foods into your diet. It is quite possibly once of the healthiest things one can do to achieve total optimal health!
Dr. Anders Nerman, N.D. is a Naturopathic Doctor with an Integrative Family Medical practice in Wolfson Medical Center in Jerusalem, Israel. For more visit www.drnerman.com or call 972-54-427-8667.
Information is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician or other healthcare professional. Always speak with your physician or other healthcare professional before taking any medication or nutritional, herbal or homeopathic supplement, or adopting any treatment for a health problem.