Fermented Foods: The Missing Link To Optimal Gut Health

fermented foods

Fermented Foods: The Missing Link To Optimal Gut Health

Whether we like or it not our bodies are made up of trillions of bacteria. We are basically more bacteria than we are human. These bacteria can be found on our skin, inside our mouths and most prominently in our guts, where they play an essential role in our health.

In today’s world, our bacteria are going haywire. We either have too much or we have too little. It is rare to find a gut microbiome which is optimal in the western world and there are many reasons for this including:

  • Poor diet
  • Antibiotics
  • Medications
  • Sugar
  • Gluten
  • Dairy
  • Sedentary behaviour
  • Environmental pollutants

So how do we ensure we have the best and most optimal microbiome? The key answer is diversity.

Diversity refers to the number of different species of bacteria found in our guts. The more diversity we have the healthier the individual typically is.

The alternative holds true that the less diverse your microbiome is, the more likely you are to have a chronic illness of some kind.

To put this into perspective, the microbiomes of people in western countries are far less diverse than the microbiomes of various tribes in Africa and South America. The evidence is clear, these tribal communities have never heard of chronic illnesses while western countries like Australia and the US are in the midst of a chronic health epidemic.

So how do we increase the diversity of our guts?

While this is a loaded question there are some easy ways to get more diversity of gut bugs into your life. These include:

  • Fermenting Foods
  • Eating the rainbow of veggies
  • Eating different species of veggies
  • Exposing yourself to differing environments

Fermenting Foods is perhaps the most direct way given it contains active and live bacteria which are unique, rare and diverse. Different ferments have different species of gut bugs which is why it is an invaluable tool to turbocharging your gut microbiome.

So with that in mind let’s get into what fermentation is and why it is important to our health.

Contents: 

What is Fermentation?
The History of Fermentation
The Benefits of Fermentation
Fermenting Foods: The Good News + Common Mistakes

What is Fermentation?

Fermentation is defined as the production of energy by microorganisms without the presence of oxygen [1]. While many food fermentation is anaerobic there are others that do require oxygen. Because of this slight nuance, for the purpose of this course, fermentation is referred to as the transformative action of microbes. Think of fermentation as the conversion of sugars to organic acids through the work of microbes.

You can ferment just about anything but there are some common ferments which are done around the world. These include:

    1. Fermented vegetables (saurkraut, kimchi, curtido)
    2. Fermented Beverages (kombucha, coconut water kefir, beet kvass)
    3. Fermented Non-dairy yoghurts (coconut yoghurt, cashew yogurt)

Incredibly fermentation has been around since the beginning to time making it one of the most neglected food groups in our diets.

The History of Fermentation

Food fermentation is an ancient process that dates back to the introduction of agriculture when it was used as a means to conserve food [2]. The production and consumption of fermented foods dates back ten thousand years.

There are artifacts from Egypt and the Middle East to Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa that suggest these food preservation methods existed among the native communities [3]. As the population grew, fermentation was an important way for humans to store food to get through winters and poor environmental conditions [4].

Every culture of the world has an established history of fermented foods and beverages that still exist today and account for approximately one-third of the diet [5].

However, for reason or not western countries have neglected this food group which is a shame because we are missing out on all this good bacteria and diversity in our diets.

The Benefits of Fermentation

While there are multiple benefits to fermentation, there are two main benefits relating to your microbiome and gut health. These are probiotics and metabolites.

1. Loaded With Probiotics and Diverse Good Bacteria

Literally translating to “pro-life,” probiotics are the living microorganisms inside of us that exert health-benefits by balancing the intestinal micro-flora and protecting us from the damaging effects of harmful bacteria. Fermented foods are major sources of probiotics and work by complementing and adding to the resident microbial communities in your gut.

The evidence about probiotics is continuing to grow. Some of its benefits to date include:

  • Probiotics have the potential to lower systemic inflammation, decrease oxidative stress and improve nutritional status [6].
  • Probiotics up-regulate immunoglobulins, down-regulate inflammatory cytokines and enhance the gut barrier function [7].
  • Probiotics help improve intestinal tract health, enhance the immune system, make nutrients more bioavailable, and decrease the prevalence of allergies [8].
  • Probiotics also modify gut pH and compete for pathogen binding and receptor sites meaning less bad bacteria and more good [9].

Some of the various unique and rare probiotic species found in fermented foods include:

  • Lactobacillus plantarum
  • Lactobacillus brevis
  • Lactobacillus sakei
  • Leuconostoc mesenteroides
  • Weissella koreenis
  • Zygosaccharomyces florentinus
  • Komagataeibacter
  • Gluconacetobacter
  • Zygosaccharomyces
  • + many more
2. Loaded with Amazing Metabolites and Postbiotics

When microbes feed on plant fibers (prebiotics) from fruit or vegetables they leave behind metabolic byproducts known as postbiotics and fortunately fermented food actively contain them [10].

Postbiotics are the metabolites formed during probiotic metabolism in the gut. These metabolites of probiotics include organic acids, bacteriocins, carbonic substances and enzymes. Specific examples include short-chain fatty acids such as acetate, butyrate and propionate [11].

These metabolites are known not only to enrich nutritional qualities of our food but also to eliminate the presence of any anti-nutrients.

Studies have found that it is the function of the metabolites that reduce pH levels in the gut making it difficult for pathogens to survive [12].

Fermenting Foods: The Good News + Common Mistakes

The good news is that you can learn to do your own ferments in your very own kitchen. It just requires some knowledge and some tips here and there.

However, while it is exciting and fun to ferment your own foods there are a lot of common mistakes which people make.

That is why it is so important to learn from a professional such as a microbiologist to begin with. They typically know the ins and outs of bacteria and how to ferment optimally.

This way you can master your ferments and become your very own fermentation expert to which you can teach to others (you will be the cool kid on the block and that is guaranteed)

Some of the main mistakes first timer fermenters make include:

  • Learning from unqualified chefs or cooks who claim to know the art and science of fermentation.
  • Using unfiltered water in your ferments.
  • Not sterilising your fermentation equipment.
  • Containing your ferments with GMO laced foods.
  • Harvesting your ferments too quickly or leaving them too long.
  • Eating your ferments despite the presence of mould.
  • + plus much more.
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