Why are fermented foods good for you?
Here's the top 7 health benefits of fermented foods you need to know.
We’ve all heard probiotic-rich foods can help our gut (1). You may have incorporated fermented foods into your diet in hopes of easing your digestive problems or strengthening your gut health. However, do you know why they’re important and how they benefit the microbiome?
At Olive My Pickle, we’re passionate about gut health and helping you improve yours. In this article, we’ll explain the 7 key health benefits of fermented foods: what they are and why they're important.
Because when you understand the what and the why, the how becomes much easier.
Let's get into it.
The 7 health benefits of fermented food
Fermented food contains lactic acid bacteria (Probiotics)
You probably know the basics - probiotics are good for gut health, but what exactly are probiotics, and what do they actually do to support gut health?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that confer a health benefit to you when consumed. Most notably they help maintain and improve the colony of good bacteria in the body known as the microbiome. The most common probiotic foods are fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, pickles, kefir, and fermented vegetables.
It's important to distinguish the difference between your resident microbiome and the probiotics you consume with fermented foods: they are not the same thing.
Your resident microbiome is the colony of bacteria that lives in and on your body. It's prime time of development is in the first three years of life, starting when a baby is born from the sterile environment of the womb and makes its way through the birth canal where it encounters its mother's microbes for the first time.
Early childhood exposure to household dirt, pets, the outdoors, nature, and other people combined with diet will determine the "baseline" microbiome a person will carry with them the rest of their lives. Although this is the foundational period, it is possible with intention and focus to build (or rebuild) your microbiome later in life.
The microbiome is extremely malleable and responds almost in real time to inputs from your lifestyle. Food, alcohol, sugar, gluten, stress, lack of sleep and antibiotics are some key lifestyle elements that affect the quality and quantity of the population of resident microbiome.
Probiotics that you eat are NOT your microbiome and they do not become your microbiome. Many people misunderstand this and assume that the probiotics they eat repopulate the gut biome by becoming permanent residents, but that's not true.
Rather, think of probiotic as welcome visitors, "just passing through" on a southbound journey. As they travel, they communicate with the resident microbiome and our immune cells. Science research (2) has shown that this 'cross talk' between the 'host and microbes' is stimulating to and essentially "tunes up" the gut biome and immune system.
We like to think of these transient visiting probiotics as a cross between a personal trainer and a good friend. They interact with, instruct, drill, communicate to and sharpen the skills of the resident microbiome and immune cells, leaving things better and stronger than they found them.
And although the lactic acid bacteria do not become permanent residents of the microbiome, they do enable the residents to more easily proliferate and therefore grow in population.
More about how science describes the personality of lactic acid bacteria (LAB)
They are resilient. Lactic acid bacteria are characterized by the fact that they survive the transition from the stomach to the small intestine, and they are still quite active by the time they reach the large intestine.
They are cooperative. A 2016 study (3) states that “(LAB) are members of the normal microbial ecosystem in the intestinal tract and seem to play a key role in maintaining stability and diversity of the gut microbiome.”
They are antibiotic and anti carcinogenic. Research has shown that LAB can prevent the growth of coliform bacteria and agents of cholera from establishing themselves in the intestine. For this reason, since ancient times, consuming LAB rich drinks have been considered a tonic against infection. Even some carcinogenic substances are inhibited and neutralized in the presence of lactic acid bacteria. Our gut's purpose is as much about absorbing nutrients as it is in resisting infections, and lactic acid bacteria greatly aids both of these efforts.
They are well researched. Lactic acid bacteria is one of the most well-studied groups of probiotics and have been shown to help support a healthy gut and provide a number of health benefits, including:
Eliminating diarrhea (4) and constipation (5)
Improving irritable bowel syndrome (6)
Fighting urinary (7) and yeast infections (8)
Boosting immune function (9)
Digesting lactose in those who are lactose intolerant (10)
They are regenerative. Another major reason why LAB is great for your gut is that they seem to have a reinforcing power to the precious gut barrier, patching up leaks. Gut permeability (also known as leaky gut) is a result of modern life: eating industrialized and processed food, the overuse of antibiotics and consuming too much sugar and processed wheat gluten. Leaky gut means that the barrier between the gut lining and the blood stream is compromised. Harmful bacterial endotoxins are able to seep out of the intestines and into the blood stream, sparking an inflammatory response and creating chronic inflammation.
The lactic acid bacteria found in fermented foods patches up these leaks, preventing compounds like endotoxins from leaking into the blood stream. This is why live culture probiotics from fermented vegetables, and their lactic acid bacteria is anti-inflammatory.
Fermented food is rich in enzymes
We consider the benefit of enzymes to the the #1 most under-recognized health attribute of raw fermented foods. 20th century nutritional research found the significance of vitamins and nutrients. Parallel to this was the discovery of enzymes, which are complex proteins that act as a catalyst in almost every biochemical process that takes place in the body. There are three classifications of enzymes:
Food enzymes are found in most raw foods and their presence in the mouth and stomach helps to kick-start the digestive process. Remember that digestive enzymes do not enter the picture until food comes down into the small intestine. When we eat enzyme-rich raw foods items like fermented pickles, kraut and kimchi, they help start the process of digestion and reduce the burden on the body to produce digestive enzymes.
To explain it another way: cooking food destroys all of its enzymes. Thus, a diet of mostly cooked foods will need a tremendous amount of digestive enzymes and this places a burden on the pancreas and other digestive organs. Dr. Edward Howell (11), who discovered the significance of enzymes not just to digestion, but to overall health found that, "humans and animals on a diet comprised largely of cooked foods, particularly grains, have enlarged pancreas organs while other glands and organs, most notably the brain, actually shrink in size."
Traditional cultures eating heritage diets (ie, non industrialized) would as a rule always eat fermented food with their cooked meals. Asian cultures serve kimchi with a meal. Middle eastern cultures will have a bowl of olives on every dinner table, and in eastern europeans the table would be garnished with sauerkrauts. It was understood that these fermented foods aided in digestion and thus provided energy. More on that below.
We need to mention that we don't advocate a fully raw diet. Cooking food has the benefit of making nutrients much more bioavailable. Further, cooking certain foods eliminates much of their toxins—many plants are an example of this (raw plants can have quite high toxicity levels as a defense mechanism. Bloating and stomach cramps after eating too many raw greens or raw juice are an indication of this.)
Because cooking destroys all enzymes, consuming a bite or two of fermented food whenever you eat cooked food is the simplest and easiest thing you can do to aid your body's digestion and help you absorb more of the food's nutrients.
Raw fermented foods increase your energy
Your body spends as much as 70% of its energy digesting food. Anything that can reduce that means more energy for things like cognitive function and injury repair. Food enzymes found in raw, fermented foods aid your digestive process, taking some of the load off and allowing your energy to go to other areas of the body. This is why the phenomenon of increased energy (12) is one of the main benefits of eating or drinking fermented products.
Here is another paradigm shifting quote from Dr. Edward Howell, "The length of life is inversely proportional to the rate of exhaustion of the enzyme potential of the organism. The increased use of food enzymes promote a decreased rate of exhaustion of the enzyme potential." More enzymes from food = less exhaustion to the body. Dr. Howell posited that over stimulation of digestive organs meant a shortened lifespan, more illness and lowered resistance to stress of all types. (Nourishing Traditions, Fallon, 1999)
Fermented vegetables themselves are actually predigested by their enzymes. Even after being subjected to heat, fermented foods are more easily assimilated because of this.
Eating fermented foods can also increase your energy by allowing more vitamin and mineral absorption. Fermentation, through its metabolic process increases the vitamin levels in the vegetables, increasing B vitamins (13) specifically, which help to increase energy and improve cognitive function.
Fermented foods increase the absorption of nutrients
We truly nourish ourselves, not by what we eat, but rather by our body's ability to break that down, extract and assimilate the nutrients within our consumed foods.
Both the lactic acid bacteria and the enzymes found in ferments enable the nutrients from your food to more easily be absorbed and therefore bioavailable. Bioavailability simply means the ability of a nutrient to be absorbed and used by the body.
Micro nutrients like vitamins and minerals are often less bioavailable for your body to absorb and use. Fermentation's byproducts of lactic acid bacteria and food enzymes essentially unlock the nutrients in your food by breaking down the cell walls that keep those nutrients trapped.
One 2016 study (14) shows that lacto fermentation of foods increases the bioavailability of iron. In addition, fermented foods can also increase the absorption of zinc (15) and phytate (16).
When eaten with healthy fats, fermented foods can help absorb nutrients from other foods and make them easier to digest (17).
Fermented foods are vitamin rich
Not only do fermented foods retain all their nutrients and vitamins, but their nutritional value increases during the process of fermentation.
During fermentation, microorganisms generate various nutrients such as vitamin C, (18) B group vitamins (19), and vitamin K (20).
The fermentation process can also neutralize toxic substances (21) and consumes sugar from vegetables.
Fermented foods are mineral rich
Fermented food contains high amounts of mineral sea salt and is therefore rich in sodium, potassium and other trace minerals.
Sodium is an electrolyte, meaning that it creates an electrically charged ion when dissolved in fluids like blood. Our bodies need electrolytes to facilitate nerve impulses and regulate body functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiration, brain activity, and blood pressure.
To read more about why your body needs more sodium to live and thrive, read our article The Truth About Sodium and Fermented Foods.
Fermented foods are fiber rich
Studies show (22) a high-fiber diet can support healthy gut microbiome and strong immune function.
Fermented vegetables contain soluble fiber, which is essential to maintain bowel and digestive health, cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, and healthy weight.
Soluble fiber easily dissolves in water and is broken down in the colon. This helps to either bulk up loose stools or soften firm stools. Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and is left intact, keeping bowel movements regular.
Soluble fibers are prebiotics that functions as a food source for your gut’s microorganisms, which can help to increase butyrate in your body.
Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid made by the good bacteria in your gut. It helps to stabilize blood sugar levels (23), protect against cancer(24), support brain health(25) and prevent obesity (26).
To read more about the different types of fiber, and why fiber is so foundational to good gut health, read our article The Best Types of Fiber for Gut Health.
Should everyone eat fermented food?
Now that we’ve answered the question, “Why are fermented foods good for you?” Let’s tackle another question we often get asked, “Are fermented foods good for everyone?”
While fermented foods offer a variety of health benefits, some people should take extra precautions when consuming fermented foods.
Who should not eat fermented food
Those on a low FODMAP diet
Some fermented foods can be high in FODMAPS (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols). FODMAPS are not a problem for most people, but for those who are sensitive, they may experience discomfort when eating fermented foods. Typically, a low FODMAP diet is a temporary, interventional diet used to identify problematic 'trigger' foods. So if you’re following this specific diet, you may want to avoid or limit your intake of fermented food until you are off the diet.
Those with SIBO
SIBO (small intestinal bacteria overgrowth) occurs when there is an abnormal increase in the overall bacterial population in the small intestine. Those who suffer from SIBO often feel worse after eating fermented food and can experience bloating and gassiness.
Those with histamine sensitivities
Fermented foods tend to be high in histamine, so if you’re sensitive to histamine, you should avoid large servings of fermented foods.
As you've read, there are so many health benefits of fermented foods beyond just their probiotic qualities. There's a reason why these are called 'ancient wisdom foods.' Our ancestors knew to eat these for their healing, digestive, energizing and immunity boosting properties, and now we have the science to validate this wisdom.
How do I eat fermented foods for my gut health?
Our quick guide has the answers. Get 20+ meal ideas, tips, hacks and snacks for your best gut ever.
Sign up now and get 10% off your first order.
Olive My PickleAt Olive My Pickle, we make caring for your gut simple. We know real fermented foods can be hard to find, which is why we deliver tasty, fermented foods right to your door.
We offer many fermented foods such as pickles, kraut, kimchi, olives, fermented vegetables, and vegetable brine drinks to help decrease inflammation and improve overall microbial diversity.
Visit our shop to explore our unique fermented foods and start optimizing your gut health today!