Gut Reaction – How Fermented Foods Can Improve Your Health

May 2016 - Health & Wellness

Gut reaction, gut feeling, gut wrenching. All these sayings evoke emotions, and aren’t really about your gut—are they?

Neuroscientific research now proves there is a ‘gut-brain connection’—that what happens in our gut directly affects the health of our bodies, our brains, and our mood. And because of that we are seeing a revived interest in getting back to eating beneficial basics, like fermented food alive with the kind of microbes that our guts—and our whole beings—just love.

First a primer…
Our intestines teem with hundreds of different species of bacteria, most of which are friendly and protective. Their job is to aid the digestion and absorption of nutrients from food. They also ‘screen’ these nutrients to determine if they get to pass through the intestinal wall, the pathway to our bloodstream. Think of them as soldiers guarding the castle walls.

But some of the bacteria—from food we shouldn’t eat, or from toxins—aren’t as friendly, and then a battle begins to prevent them from breaching that wall, and multiplying in our bloodstream.

Dysbiosis—the opposite of ‘symbiosis’ or ‘living in harmony’—happens when the healthy microbes lose, usually from too much physical and mental stress, and highly processed diets. A mild outcome may be gas or bloating, but when the imbalance is chronic, people can experience digestive issues like inflammatory bowel disease, food allergies and sensitivities—and a host of others like arthritis, autoimmune illness, chronic fatigue syndrome, and skin conditions like cystic acne, eczema, and psoriasis. Neuroscientists now also know that gut microbes affect our brain function, and have found links to brain fog, depression, hyperactivity, and learning and behavioural disorders.

Over the last century, fermented foods have been replaced by pasteurized and processed foods, which kill off beneficial bacteria like pre- and probiotics, while vital to a balanced gut, undermining the foundation for our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.

That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the balance of our gut bacteria—to make sure our garrison is full of good soldiers. The best way to do that is to return to the time-tested fermented foods.

A Return to Tradition
Naturopathic Doctor Jason Marr of Evoke Integrative Medicine Ltd. agrees, and explains why.

“The fermentation process produces probiotics, a healthy bacteria,” he says, “which improve our access to nutrients, and the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities of foods. Fermenting pre-dates cooking as a way to preserve food, to slowly break it down so that our bodies can digest it more easily, and to make us less susceptible to bacteria and infection.”

Evidence of fermentation vessels has been found in archeaological digs in Eastern Europe, dating back to the Paleolithic era. Traditional diets, he says, were up to 30% fermented.

“We’ve known for thousands of years how to ferment foods, and science now tells us why it works—what is beneficial from a nutritional standpoint. This renewed interest is a re-boot of old and ancient therapies—a return to naturally good-for-us traditional diets.”

Go With Your Gut
Incorporating fermented foods into your diet is easy—in fact, you may be doing so already, without realizing it, if you eat sauerkraut, tofu, or miso. Just make sure you eat a variety, as each one inoculates your gut with a different type of beneficial probiotic.

Your exploration can be an adventure into other traditional global cuisines: lassi, idlis, and dosas from India; kimchi, fish sauce, tempeh, and kombucha from East Asia; and sourdough breads, kefir, and gravlax from Europe.

You can even make your own fermented salsas, relishes, and pickles, as well as fermented vegetables, in endless combinations. Start with pairings of organic carrots, onions, celery, fennel, green beans, cabbage, beets, parsnips, and kale flavoured with ginger, garlic, and chilis—or herbs and spices like dill, mint, cinnamon, coriander, or mustard seeds. A few jars, a bit of chopping, some sea salt, and water are all you need to create your own delicious crispy-salty-sour—and highly addictive—stock of fermented veggies, ready in just a few short days.

Or for convenience—or if you are not fond of the flavours—Dr. Marr suggests a supplement such as Fermented Vegan Proteins+ or Fermented Whole Body Nutrition with Greens+ from Genuine Health.

Whatever you do, start slowly to give your body time to adjust, and always consult a naturopathic doctor or nutritionist if you need professional guidance.

Did you know?

  • Our digestive tracts are sterile when we are born. Bacteria start to colonize when breast milk and other environmental factors are introduced, and continue to increase in variety and quantity as we grow older. This is the start of our natural defense system.
  • Our GI tracts has more bacteria than our bodies have cells.
  • An estimated 80% of our immune system is located in the gut.
  • Our gut produces more mood-enhancing serotonin than our brain.
  • The bacteria in our gut weigh approximately 4 lbs.
  • An estimated 400 to 1,000 different species of bacteria live in our GI system.
  • Most of the digestion and absorption of food nutrients happens in the small intestine, after being processed in the stomach into a thick paste called chyme.
  • The small intestine is about 22′ (7 m) long, and an inch (2.5 cm) wide. Because its walls are actually folds with fingerlike projections called villi, its surface area is about 2,700 square feet (250 sq. m)—about the size of a tennis court.
  • The digestive system is home to more cancers, and causes more cancer mortalities, than any other organ system in the body.
  • Fermented foods produce many B vitamins, and other nutrients such as vitamin K2, which play a preventative role in heart disease.
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