Bacteria have long had a reputation as “bad guys” that do nothing but cause infection and illness. But in reality, disease-causing bacteria represent only a small proportion of the actual bacteria in and on our bodies. In fact, inside our bodies (particularly in our guts) exists an extremely complex system of living, thriving organisms—between 10 to 100 trillion microbes, primarily consisting of bacteria.
The majority of these bacteria are actually protective and health promoting. Their strong, robust presence is what keeps harmful bacteria at bay, what helps convert ingredients in our diet into life-enhancing nutrients, and consequently, what helps us stay healthy most of the time. Illnesses only crop up when bad bacteria gain a stronghold, start to outnumber the “good guys,” and overtake the capacity of our immune system to keep them in check.
Aside from keeping us healthy, beneficial bacteria have a vast, significant role in many other aspects of our health. They aid in proper digestion and absorption of vitamins and nutrients. They protect against many gastrointestinal problems including diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic bowel diseases, and even colon cancer. And research suggests they help to prevent allergies, skin issues such as eczema, depression and other mood disorders, obesity, diabetes, and urinary and vaginal infections.1-14
A Tasty Way to Boost Good Bugs
With so many potential benefits (many of which have yet to be realized), increasing the number of friendly bacteria in your body can be a real health boon. Taking a probiotic supplement is one of the top ways to boost these bacteria, but there’s a “tastier” way I’d like to discuss with you: fermented foods.
You’re probably familiar with some fermented foods, and you may even eat them occasionally.
Yogurt is the most common. You’ve likely noticed that yogurt labels say the product has “live and active cultures.” These would be the bacteria that ferment the milk, turning it into yogurt. Cottage cheese, kefir, buttermilk, and whey are other fermented dairy products.
Non-dairy fermented foods include sauerkraut, pickled vegetables (beets, cucumbers, radishes, etc.), kimchi, natto, tempeh, and miso.
Fermented foods are naturally high in probiotics because the fermentation process releases health-promoting lactic acid-producing bacteria. (These bacteria naturally cause milk products to sour and vegetables to ferment. They are also commonly found in probiotic supplements.)
Fermented foods are teeming with beneficial microbes. Importantly, these foods have several characteristics that help the bacteria survive the trip through the digestive tract, which is notoriously harsh and tends to kill many of the bacteria found in probiotic supplements before they can even reach the stomach.
While the number of bacterial strains in probiotic supplements is often limited to three, four, or maybe five, dozens (sometimes hundreds) of varieties exist in fermented foods, providing your body a much more diverse microbial population. Additionally, fermented foods contain enzymes and other nutrients that promote the multiplication of these many species of bacteria.
A Step Beyond Supplements
While probiotic supplements are effective in upping the number of good bacteria in your system, fermented foods go a step further.
Lactic acid-producing bacteria create an environment in the digestive tract conducive to the growth of many strains of friendly microbes—and inhospitable to many species of harmful bugs. These foods also have the unique ability to ease digestive concerns by balancing out the production of stomach acid. As we age, we naturally tend to make fewer digestive enzymes and juices, and this deficit can lead to a wide range of digestive problems.
Digestive benefits aside, emerging research indicates that consumption of fermented foods widely enhances human health and may promote brain and mental health. Professor Keith Steinkraus, a pioneer in this area said, “The processes required for fermented foods were present on earth when man appeared on the scene… When we study these foods, we are in fact studying the most intimate relationships between man, microbe, and foods.”
In a comprehensive review focusing on mental health, researchers wrote, “properly controlled fermentation may often amplify the specific nutrient and phytochemical content of foods, the ultimate value of which may be associated with mental health.” They also stated that certain microbes commonly associated with fermented foods, such as the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria species, “may influence brain health via direct and indirect pathways.”15
In another study carried out in 710 people, researchers discovered that “consumption of fermented foods that contain probiotics may serve as a low-risk intervention for reducing social anxiety.” In fact, the more fermented foods the participants ate, the fewer symptoms of social anxiety they experienced.16
Preliminary research has also shown that fermented foods may help to prevent obesity, allergies, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer.17
Ferment Your Own Food
Some fermented foods, like yogurt and sauerkraut, can easily be found at all grocery stores. But the problem with these foods is that they get pasteurized during their manufacture to kill harmful bacteria. As you can probably guess, pasteurization also kills most or all of the beneficial bacteria, rendering the product pretty much useless when it comes to improving health.
To really gain the most value from fermented foods, try making them yourself. You can buy yogurt makers at most stores and online, and fermenting pots (which look a lot like crockpots) even exist. You can also find a variety of cookbooks and recipes online for how to ferment some of your favorite vegetables, including cabbage (to make sauerkraut), cucumbers (to make pickles), peppers, carrots, seaweed, and even broccoli. Fermenting your own food is an extremely easy process that ensures that you not only gain the most value nutritionally, but also “probiotically!”
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