Fermented foods have been around for centuries, but have started to be highlighted in Western cultures as an important aspect of health that we need to be consuming regularly. This is mainly due to the probiotic content and their effect on our gut bacteria. Most people have heard of the benefits of fermented dairy products such as yogurt (I do not recommend eating dairy products; read why here), and drinks like kombucha and kefir are now readily available in most supermarkets.
What are fermented foods?
Fermented foods have been through the process of lactofermentation, which is where bacteria feed on sugar and starches, creating lactic acid, B vitamins, beneficial enzymes, probiotics, and omega 3 fatty acids. Fermentation preserves nutrients, and can improve the bioavailability and digestibility of many nutrients.
Some fermented foods that are simple to make at home include:
Kombucha, kefir, and rejuvelac
Sauerkraut, kimchi, kvass, salsa
Tempeh and sourdough bread*
*while these foods involve the fermentation of beans and grains, some benefits are lost in the cooking process. However, many beans and grains are better tolerated if they have been fermented.
Why eat fermented foods?
There are so many benefits of fermented foods! I’ll highlight a few here, but just know that this is just a snapshot of how ferments can benefit your life.
The link between ferments and mental health:
At a basic level, the gut has large amounts of nerve endings that communicate with the brain. THIS ARTICLE by Hopkins Medicine calls this link the “brain-gut connection”, and talks about the link between the enteric nervous system (ENS) and the central nervous system (CNS). These two systems communicate with each other both directly and indirectly, through neural pathways, as well as the amplification and improved absorption of nutrients that affect the brain.
Healthy gut flora also helps to balance hormones, which can affect mental health as well. Balanced hormones help to regulate menstrual and sleep cycles, keeping us on track and feeling clear-headed and energetic.
Let’s talk sugar, for a second. We’ve all head of a “sugar high”, or the link between sugar and hyperactivity both in children and in adults. While this issue has a multitude of causes that are likely tightly intertwined, studies linking the brain and the cut may offer a new perspective. I am interested in looking into the possibility that the carbohydrate spike of sugar isn’t necessarily the cause of hyperactivity, but perhaps the inflammatory and negative effect of sugar on our gut flora may lead to unbalance and affects our behaviour in that way. I’ll keep you updated on any findings!
THIS ARTICLE by Selhub et. al. (2014) discusses the link between fermentation and modern psychiatry, suggesting that inflammation and oxidative stress can be controlled, to a degree, by healthy gut flora. He does discuss briefly the effect of sugar on our microbiome.
My favourite ferments
It took me a while to be okay with the idea of fermented food. I used to be terrified of food going bad and making me ill, and was even pretty iffy on eating leftovers. Ferments can have a bit of a tangy taste at first which I wasn’t so sure about, but now I love it!
I suggest adding ferments into your diet slowly, maybe ¼ cup per day to start out, then increasing your “dose” after about a week, or once you notice that your system can tolerate larger amounts. It is totally normal to experience gas and loose stools while your body adjusts and cleans itself out.
My FAVE ferment is kombucha. It is a fermented tea beverage, and can be flavoured so many different ways. It’s nice and bubbly like soda, and feels like a treat. I brew it myself, and try to consume ½ cup every morning. Water kefir is similar to kombucha, and can be flavoured many ways as well. I also make homemade ginger ale with fermented ginger, and am currently experimenting with “orangina”-like soda.
Sauerkraut is another great choice and is easy to make or find in the grocery store. Make sure you’re buying raw unpasteurized kraut; the ingredients should only be cabbage and salt, and it will need to be refrigerated. Wine sauerkraut is tasty but does not offer the same health benefits.
What about probiotic supplements?
I’ve had people ask me why I bother going through the trouble of making multiple types of ferments if I could just be taking a probiotic supplement. I’m a huge fan of food over pills, and don’t like the idea of popping a processed (and often heavily packaged in plastic) pill when I could make and consume something at home. Home ferments and ferments in food form have a great variety in good bacteria, and eating multiple sources of fermented foods gives our body exposure to different strains of probiotics. If you do decide to use a probiotic supplement, look for one with multiple strains of LIVE bacteria, and always keep them in the fridge.