Throughout history, people have enjoyed the sour, tangy taste of fermented foods, attributing health and longevity to foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, and miso. Centuries later scientists began to identify beneficial bacteria in these foods as the main health-giving component. Certainly fermented foods should be a mainstay of our diets – in fact, our health is dramatically impacted depending on the balance of these good bacteria.
The Garden Within
The balance of organisms in our digestive tract has been likened to a garden. Like any garden, there are plants we cultivate, and weeds that we need to clear out. Within the digestive tract, we want to cultivate good bacteria. In fact, there are hundreds of types of bacteria in a healthy intestinal tract. Good bacteria, such as lactobacillus and bifidophilus, adhere to the walls of the intestines, where they perform a variety of nourishing and supportive functions. As with a garden, certain conditions promote healthy growth while others weaken plants and promote disease. Within the digestive tract, fermented foods promote and replenish a healthy bacterial environment, while a high sugar diet, antibiotics and excessive refined foods weaken the environment, promoting the overgrowth of harmful organisms and undermining our health.
Good Bacteria: Bugs You Can't Live Without
Beneficial bugs are microscopic, with millions of organisms easily found within a spoonful of miso soup. Despite their size, they perform very important functions.
B-vitamins are a by-product of beneficial bacteria, nourishing the brain, aiding in digestion of proteins, and helping cells to produce energy. These bacteria aid in the absorption of calcium and the digestion of lactose (milk sugar). They also produce amino acids and other nutrients.
Good bacteria help break down excess hormones from the body, reducing toxic estrogen by-products. Pesticides, as well as other toxins that we ingest, are neutralized. They also prevent the conversion of nitrates in food to cancer-causing nitrites.
- Immune - enhancement
These helpful bugs produce natural antimicrobials–fighting infection. In addition, they create an acidic environment that is very inhospitable for the bad bugs. Intestinal bacteria are a key part of the immune system, producing immune factors that work together with other parts of the system to optimize health.
As you can see, adding probiotic-rich fermented foods will provide many health benefits. When we do not have sufficient good bacteria, the intestinal environment changes. It becomes easier for harmful organisms to adhere to the lining, where they multiply and crowd out the good bacteria. This state of imbalance is known as dysbiosis. As the “bad” organisms grow, they produce substances that interfere with normal digestion and absorption. This can result in fatigue, digestive intolerance, diarrhea, constipation, and food allergies. Numerous conditions such as skin and immune disorders have also been linked to dysbiosis. The good news is that this imbalance can be reversed!
Delicious Ways To Get Healthier
How can we include more of these beneficial probiotics in our diet? In the past fermented foods – including meats, grains, legumes and vegetables - were consumed daily. Generally these foods were homemade and of course, organic. Now, commercial processing techniques resulted in poor quality fermented foods which are not beneficial to health, such as sugary yogurts made with low levels beneficial bacteria. Fortunately, there are many healthful fermented products that busy people can easily include in their daily diet, such as kombucha tea (a fermented tea), kefir (fermented goat's milk), aged cheese, olives, pickled vegetables cured in brine (not vinegar), tempeh, or kimchi ( A Korean dish made with fermented cabbage). Remember to add fermented foods after using antibiotics to promote a healthy balance of organisms in your system. By incorporating these foods on a daily basis we can create a garden of health that will sustain us for a lifetime.