An Introduction to Fermented Foods for Healing
What is Fermentation?
Fermentation is the process of breaking down substances using microbes and/or enzymes. In the context of fermented foods, it is the process of creating an environment for beneficial microbes to thrive and pre-digest food or liquids. That initiates a cycle where the pH of the food changes to create an even more ideal environment for beneficial microbes to thrive while preventing harmful ones. This helps to preserve perishable foods for storage, enhances the enzyme activity of our food, and helps nutrients to be more active, easily digestible, and bioavailable. There are 3 types of ferments:
- Lactic Acid Fermentation – Bacteria and yeast strains convert starches or sugars into lactic acid. This occurs in an anaerobic environment, without oxygen. (i.e. sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented pickles, and other veggies)
- Acetic Acid Fermentation – Acetic acid bacteria (AAB) are a group of bacteria that oxidize sugars or ethanol and produce acetic acid during fermentation. (i.e. vinegar)
- Ethanol fermentation/alcohol fermentation – is the process where natural yeast consume sugars such as glucose, fructose, and sucrose for energy. This process creates ethanol and carbon dioxide by-products, making alcohol fermented beverages. (i.e. Beer, wine, hard cider, etc.)
How are fermented foods traditionally used?
Every culture has a tradition of fermented foods and/or drinks. The earliest record of fermented practices dates 6,000-7,000 BC in China. Most fermentation practices were discovered by accident as food and drinks were left to sit out and if the temperature and conditions were ideal, the microbes in the environment and present on the food would begin to do what they do best. Then the tradition of ferments began. You can ferment just about anything…veggies, fruit, beans, grains, nuts, dairy, meat, water, juice, tea, herbs, etc.
Most traditional cuisine serves a small portion of fermented food with every meal or at least daily. Some examples include sauerkraut in Europe, kimchi in Korea, miso in Japan, injera in Ethiopia, chutneys in India, sourdough bread, pickles, cheese, yogurt, kefir, and more. Then there are fermented beverages such as beer, wine, cider, kombucha, jun, mead, herbal soda, kvass, kefir, etc.
When new to consuming ferments, start small and slowly introduce the new beneficial cultures. For lacto-fermented veggies (fermented pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, etc.) start by eating 1-2 forkfuls a day. Then work your way up to every meal. This is the recommended amount encouraged to eat for overall daily health and to support gut/microbe maintenance. If you can tolerate more, you are welcome to enjoy more. See info below under contraindications to know when you would consider consuming smaller amounts of fermented foods and signs to look for when you may be consuming too much and need to rebalance.
What are some known benefits of fermented foods and a Healthy Microbiome?
- Beneficial microbes are our first line of defense against pathogens. Our healthy microbiome crowds out and handles pathogens as we are exposed. If they are not able to handle it, then our immune system kicks in and produces the cells we need to clear it out.
- Microbiome research has discovered many of our feel-good hormones, neurotransmitters, and the chemicals to support brain health (oxytocin, serotonin, melatonin, GABA, etc.) are produced by the bacteria and microbes residing in our body.
- Supports mental clarity and focus.
- Reduces the stress response as well as feelings of anxiety, depression, and psychological distress.
- The microbes in our body crave what they need to survive; therefore, our food cravings do not come from us, they come from the microbes prevalent in our body. Harmful microbes crave sugar, carbohydrates, and processed food. Beneficial microbes crave plants, especially vegetables. We are more likely to crave and desire healthier foods and have a healthier diet overall when we have a healthy microbiome.
- Supports digestive functions and aids the process of digesting our food to convert important nutrients to be more bioavailable for us to absorb and use. Studies show it helps to support most digestive related diseases such as IBS, Crohn’s, constipation, inflammatory bowels, candida overgrowth, etc.
When would you temporarily avoid fermented foods or use them sparingly?
It is generally encouraged to temporarily limit or avoid fermented foods for those with SIBO (small intestinal bacteria overgrowth), Candida overgrowth (severe cases), leaky gut or with elevated histamine response until they find balance using dietary and lifestyle changes to support their gut healing. Once the gut is restored by temporarily doing an elimination diet to support the specific imbalance, then fermented foods can be incorporated to further encourage healing the gut.
In some mild cases, small amounts of fermented foods can initiate the healing process and crowd out the harmful imbalance such as with candida overgrowth; however, if candida is causing leaky gut, then you want to resolve the leaky gut first to prevent the beneficial microbes from leaking into the bloodstream. Also, those with candida and other harmful microbe imbalances can receive die-off symptoms if they consume fermented foods which are taxing on the eliminatory functions of the body and affect daily activity.
If there is an elevated histamine response such as histaminosis, fermented foods can heighten those symptoms. It is recommended to resolve and reduce the histamine response using diet and herbs before incorporating fermented foods and start by introducing them 1-2 times a week and slowly increase to daily.
Keep in mind there are many yeast-based ferments such as with dairy ferments, kombucha, and beer. These ferments should be limited or avoided with yeast and candida overgrowth, even mild cases, as the yeast in the ferment can potentially feed the yeast overgrowth in the body. Lacto-ferments would be best for these folks.
If you have any dietary restrictions such as dairy, nuts, brassicas, FODMAP, etc. avoid ferments using those foods.
Monitor how you feel when eating fermented foods. If you feel great after eating them, keep it up. If you feel tired, sluggish, achy, or get rashes or headaches after eating fermented foods, there may be a deeper imbalance that should be addressed first. In which case, temporarily eliminate fermented foods for 3 weeks-6 months and do an elimination diet until it is resolved. Testing may need to be done to help determine the imbalance.