Today, many of us take a daily probiotic supplement, but did you know that fermented foods can be thought of as the probiotics of our ancestors? About 40% of their diet was fermented foods. While they used fermentation to help preserve food, knowingly or unknowingly, they were also providing thousands of complex nutrients, including microbes, to their bodies not found in any other foods.
Flash forward to today’s North American diet, and we’re lucky to get one serving of good quality fermented foods in a week, maybe a month! So, what’s so great about fermented foods anyway and why do we need them for optimal health?
The Little Guys: Yeast and Bacteria
First of all, fermented foods are chock full of beneficial yeast and bacteria. Yes, yeast too. It’s important to know that your gut flora is made up of thousands of different types of beneficial yeasts and bacteria all working together in a symbiotic relationship with one another and their environment.
And even though regular probiotic supplements are usually made just with bacteria, it’s important that we consume, either through fermented foods or supplements, beneficial yeasts as well. One reason is because when the gut flora and their environment are healthy, the “bad” microbes don’t have a chance. Therefore, we need both these little guys—yeast and bacteria—ideally daily to keep the peace.
Nutrition Like No Other
Secondly, complex nutrients created through the fermentation process are incredibly valuable to the body. To understand this a little more, you need to know what fermentation is. In simple terms, it’s when a microbe such as a yeast or bacteria is used to break down a food for energy.
Here are some examples of fermentation:
- Wheat into sourdough bread
- Milk into cheese, kefir or yogurt
- Grapes into wine
- Soy into miso
- Grains into beer
You get the picture. The beauty of fermentation is that there is a transformation of the original substance into something brand new that’s full of nutrients created during the process that cannot be created any other way.
Another classic example of a fermented food is sauerkraut. To make it, it’s a simple process of pounding fresh cabbage, adding a little sea salt, sticking it in a jar, covering it with water and putting a lid on it. Weeks later, you have a delicious food that now provides whole food forms of vitamin C, various B vitamins, vitamin K2 (bone builder!), other vitamins, minerals, amino acids like glutamine and proline, fatty acids such as butyrate (fuel for the cells in the colon), antioxidants and so many other beneficial compounds that we probably haven’t discovered yet. This highly concentrated complexity of nutrients is what our bodies are designed to recognize and utilize to help regenerate and function. We evolved on eating complex foods, not on taking isolated, synthetic nutrients.
“The microbe is nothing, the terrain is everything.” – Louis Pasteur
When it comes to the gut microbiome, the nutrients created through fermenting foods can also be used by the body to help repair and maintain a healthy environment for the beneficial yeast and bacteria to thrive in. Part of that environment is the surface on which the yeast and bacteria live on, called the terrain, which will dictate what microbes will survive and thrive. If the terrain is unhealthy, then “bad” microbes will thrive. If the terrain is healthy, then the “good” microbes will thrive.
Going a little deeper, the bacteria and yeast in our guts are pretty picky about where they want to live and multiply. Moisture, pH, oxygen levels, other microbes present, etc. are all factors in whether the good guys decide to stay. If these optimal conditions are present, 1 microbe can divide into 2 every 20 minutes, meaning a colony of several billions of microbes can form in just a few hours. Interestingly, the accepted “therapeutic level” of microbes that are required and proven by research is only 1 million. That’s nowhere near the 1 billion or more provided in a typical probiotic supplement. So, it makes more sense to provide a natural number of microbes delivered through whole foods—like our ancestors did by eating fermented whole foods.
You can think about this another way. If humans were to be shipped up to the moon as we are, we wouldn’t survive and thrive. The terrain and environment of the moon are not conducive to human life. If we were to change the environment of the moon to suit us, then we could sustain life. It’s also the same concept in the sauerkraut example above. Sea salt is added to the mixture because it changes the environment within the jar so that “bad” microbes cannot survive and thrive. However, “good” microbes don’t mind the sea salt and can start fermenting the cabbage and creating all sorts of nutrients and acids that can keep the bad microbes out (hence, food preservation). The moral of the story is: Create an environment with a healthy terrain and you’re on your way to optimal health.
Now that we understand that the environment and a healthy terrain is vital for optimal health, we know it’s not enough to just put capsules of bacteria in our guts and call it a day – because this doesn’t change the environment! Eating fermented foods is what can change the environment and terrain and provide many strains of both beneficial yeast and bacteria.
A Diverse Ecosystem
Another important concept is to ensure diversity of the microflora. There are thousands of species of microbes that naturally inhabit our digestive tracts including yeasts and bacteria, and they all should live in harmony without one species dominating another. Just like an ecosystem, each strain of microbe has its own role to play in the body.
This is one reason why kefir and kombucha were so highly regarded by traditional cultures, as they include such a vast diversity of beneficial bacteria and yeast. An interesting fact about kefir cultures is that when fermenting, the microbes create a compound called “kefiran” which provides protection from the elements, including our own stomach acid. Kefir-style fermented foods are shown to have an 80% microbial survival rate compared to about 20% or less found in regular probiotic supplements, all through totally natural means.
Building Blocks for a Healthy Gut Flora:
Step 1: Build a healthy terrain to support the gut environment
Step 2: Create an optimal environment to support the gut flora
Step 3: Provide diverse microbes in natural amounts
Step 4: Deliver nutrients to allow microbes to survive and thrive
Fermented Foods Are Essential
Our gut flora plays a big role in our overall health. All the systems in our bodies are affected by our gut flora, from our nervous system to our immune system to our cardiovascular system and so on. To achieve a healthy gut flora, fermented foods cover all the steps – from building the terrain, to creating the environment, providing many different microbes and delivering complex nutrients. Aim for at least 1-2 servings of fermented foods or supplements per day, preferably organic, and you’re on your way to optimal health.
Find out more about Living Alchemy, a Canadian company that produces an innovative range of fermented, whole food supplements made with organic ingredients. Their unique kefir-kombucha fermentation process transforms whole foods and herbs creating bio-activated nutrients that the body intuitively recognizes and utilizes to maximum, therapeutic effect. Visit them at www.livingalchemy.com.