Societies around the world have been preparing and eating fermented foods as far back as 6,000 BC. They knew that fermenting made food last longer, and helped them digest their meals. But what they didn’t know is that fermented foods naturally contain friendly bacteria our bodies need to thrive.* What started as a way to preserve food has turned out to be much, much more.
I’ve been an avid home-fermenter for almost a decade. I regularly make all kinds of ferments: flavored water kefirs, goat milk kefir, fermented vegetables, and even condiments like catsup and chutney. My son loves the lightly sweet-and-tangy water kefir soda I make with black cherry juice. He calls it “good bug drink,” and I’m thrilled that this flavorful “soda” is his drink of choice.
I first became interested in probiotics twenty years ago after my own health issues started demanding my attention. I had practically grown up on antibiotics, so when my immune system began to go haywire, I thought perhaps the place to start supporting my immune system was in my gut.* I also knew that the very best way to support my gut was with the right kind of friendly bacteria. Probiotic foods and supplements became the single most transformative thing I’ve ever done for my body. Eventually, I became curious about their history and why they are so good for us.
Nearly every civilization includes fermented food in their culinary heritage. Almost any food can be fermented, and some prominent examples include Korean kimchi, Indian chutney, European sauerkraut, and Middle Eastern yogurt and cheese. Asian cultures ferment soybeans, seafood, black beans, sauces, and side dishes. This natural fermentation process began as a means of food preservation, allowing people to store food for weeks, months, and sometimes years. It also removed natural toxins from foods like cassava, making them safe to consume.
The beneficial yeasts and bacteria, abundant in fermented foods, protected people against foodborne illness which was prevalent due to the lack of proper food hygiene. Prior to the invention of the microscope, people didn’t know why fermented foods seemed to be good for them. But they may have suspected that fermenting—in addition to keeping foods from spoiling—actually imparted some noticeable health benefits. In fact, the recognized link between fermented foods and vibrant health started back in ancient Rome and China. The benefits of fermented food remain of great interest in modern science as well, although the message around probiotics has changed quite a bit.
Twenty years ago, the message was simple: Yogurt is good for you. Eat it!
Later, the question arose: Why is yogurt so good for me?
Today science replies: Good microbes are essential to health.*
Today, we know that eating fermented foods and supplementing with probiotics are great ways to support a healthy microbiome (the abundance of friendly bacteria that lives in your digestive tract and other parts of your body). And, we have some strong scientific evidence to back up why that’s important.*
Ideally, we would get these friendly microbes with our food and drink. They would provide small, daily doses of probiotics along with prebiotics, natural fibers that promote gut health and survival of good bacteria. If we consumed a great variety of foods (including probiotic foods), they would provide a diversity of microbes.
Different species of microbes exist in different locations throughout our bodies—on our skin, in our mouths, in our urinary tracts, and in our small and large intestines, for example. A healthy diversity provides a variety of needed species as well as a vibrant microbial balance.* This is the way nature intended. Unfortunately, most of us don’t eat this way. Even a healthy modern diet rarely includes an abundance of, or a variety of, fermented foods. To make matters worse, the colonies of beneficial microbes we do have are greatly affected by everyday things like:
- Excess caffeine
- Processed foods
Fortunately, there’s plenty we can do to support our beneficial microbes and build a healthy, diverse microbiome. Science helps us dig deeper and understand why a healthy microbiome is so important.
Bacteria with Benefits
Beneficial bacteria help us by pre-digesting food that it ferments, which transforms the nutrients we get from foods into highly bioavailable (readily useful) forms.* These little powerhouses can even manufacture nutrients like B-vitamins (helpful with stress and energy production) and vitamin K2 (crucial to bone health).* They also reduce the amount of sugar in foods by consuming some of that sugar during the fermentation process. And, they help us absorb vital nutrients from the foods we eat.* But as impressive as these benefits are, the role that good bacteria play in our health is even larger. Here are just a few examples:
Research clearly shows a connection between our gut and brain via the complex central nervous system. Not only does the brain influence the type of bacteria that thrives in our gut, but that bacteria, in turn, influences the function of the brain.* This relationship is reflected in research showing an association between dysbiosis (microbial imbalance) and mood-related behaviors.* It’s a truly mutual relationship that benefits from a strong microbial landscape in our digestive system.*
Along with the close relationship between the brain and the gut, these bacteria also influence our immune system. Essentially, the bacteria in our gut communicate with very specialized immune cells in our gut lining.* These cells promote the production of active immune cells throughout our body.* Balance is crucial to this system because imbalance can result in an over- or under-active immune response.* Neither of these responses is ideal. We want our immune system to be well informed and functioning just right for every situation. Our microbiome plays a crucial role in that balance.*
A healthy microbial balance promotes other healthy states related to our weight. It helps us feel full after eating meals, promotes the production of Conjugated Linoleic Acids (CLAs are helpful in maintaining ideal fat-to-lean ratios), supports a healthy lining in our digestive tract, and contributes to healthy abdominal fat distribution.* All of these things play an essential role in our quest to maintain a healthy weight and body.
In the last few decades, it has become clear to me that probiotics and probiotic foods are truly essential components of a healthy diet. Whether we’re talking about the nutrients in our food or supplements, it’s not enough to just ingest them. To reap the benefits of any nutrient, we must properly digest and absorb it through the gut wall.
Once you realize how crucial good bacteria are to that very process, and so many others, there’s no turning back. I know I couldn’t turn back, and I hope you can’t either.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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Mol Med. 2012; 18(1): 95–110
Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2012 Jan-Feb; 16(1): 20–27