It seems overly simple that something like a pickle or a yogurt drink can help you stay healthy, but it’s true. Fermented foods such as pickled vegetables, leavened bread, kefir, kimchi, and kombucha help with digestion and can thus boost the immune system, keeping you and your family healthy.
So how do they work?
In fermented foods, the sugars and carbohydrates have interacted in such a way that the chemistry of the food is actually changed. Grain turns into bread, fruit turns into wine, and plain cucumbers turn into pickles. Think of this change as the food being partially digested by the compounds in the vinegars, yeasts, or healthy bacteria that are working the process of fermentation.
Once this “partially digested” food hits your stomach, your body has less of a job to do. Because the chemistry of the food actually changes, in some cases fermentation may help some people digest foods to which they were previously sensitive. Kefir is a yogurt drink where the lactose is broken down almost completely by fermentation, which means that lactose-intolerant people may be able to get the benefits of dairy with less lactose.
Help with digestion means that the body can more readily absorb the nutrients in food instead of having to work so hard to break it down. As if getting adequate nutrition wasn’t enough, fermented foods also support beneficial bacteria. This beneficial bacteria is crucial for digestion, but we eliminate it constantly with our anti-bacterial soaps and our foods loaded with antibiotics (which don’t know how to distinguish good bacteria from bad). Fermented foods like kefir and kombucha contain probiotics which that healthy bacteria in the gut.
Fermented foods, however, can be difficult to research due to their changing nature.
Because they contain live cultures, fermented foods are tough to reproduce exactly, making it hard to pinpoint why they work so well and on what conditions. Anecdotally, people report that eating fermented foods have helped with everything from joint pain to autoimmune disorders, and there is some science behind the idea that beneficial bacteria is necessary in the gut for a healthy digestive environment. It stands to reason that if your digestion is working properly you will get more benefit from the food you eat, which will support your immune system and keep you healthy.
Incorporating fermented foods into your diet is as easy as adding pickles to your sandwich, sauerkraut to your hotdog, and kefir to your breakfast. Sourdough bread is a great fermented food that is easy to substitute for regular bread. You can also eat miso soup (fermented soybeans) or find kombucha in the refrigerated section of health food stores (or in the natural food section of a traditional grocery store). If you feel ambitious, you can even make your own fermented foods.
A note of caution: as bad bacteria dies off and is replaced with good bacteria, there is a possibility that you may feel some digestive upset. People with gluten sensitivity may also have issues with the yeasts in fermented foods. As always, consult your doctor with any concerns you have before making any significant dietary changes.
It is easy to incorporate live, fermented foods into your diet; which one will you try first?
Image by Mike Dierken via Flickr