If you are into healthy eating, you have probably heard about fermented foods. Maybe you have a friend that makes kombucha, or you’ve bought a bottle at the store, or someone has told you about sauerkraut or kimchi. Maybe you have heard the term probiotics, and are thinking, oh yes that’s whats in my yogurt. Well just what exactly are probiotics, and why are fermented foods reputed to be so healthy? To answer that question, we first need to know whats going on inside your belly! (warning, the remaining paragraphs contain science)
Firstly, you should know that trillions upon trillions (yes, thats right – 1,000,000,000,000’s) of bacteria call your body home. Scientists estimate that the number of bacteria in your body outnumber your human cells ten to one. The commonly accepted number of human cells in the body is 37.2 trillion. So that computes to around 372 trillion tiny little bacterias crawling around on your skin, shmoozing about in your mouth, squirming inside your guts and hanging around pretty much everywhere else on your body.
But, lets not forget that bacteria are incredibly small. In fact, a common E. Coli bacterium is smaller than a human X chromosome, as can be visualized in this wicked cool zooming simulator. So even though we have hundreds of trillions of these minuscule passengers, they still only comprise a small percentage of our body mass. Nevertheless, the bacterial (and fungal) “microbiome” that exists on us and within us plays a vital role in our physical and mental health.
So what exactly are all of these microbes doing? Well turns out, they serve many functions, some of which are just as important as any other organ in your body. Let’s focus on the bacteria living in your belly.
Scientists describe the microbes that live in our gut (a.k.a gut flora) as having five significant functions: nutrient metabolism and absorption, metabolism of foreign substances (e.g. drugs), protection from pathogenic microbes, modulation of immune response, and maintenance of the gastro-intestinal tract. Quite a bit for such small fellows!
The microbiota that lives inside your bowels is estimated to have a population of 100 trillion, with nearly 35,000 different species. That’s a great deal of diversity, and it is that diversity that allows the gut flora to tackle whatever your human digestion can’t handle. The bacteria produce enzymes that ferment food particles (yes fermentation happens inside of your belly!) such as complex carbohydrates, lipids (fats), proteins, polyphenols (antioxidant containing compounds), and oligosaccharides (anything between a simple sugar and a starch) that would otherwise be indigestible to us. These food particles are converted into valuable nutrients and vitamins such as vitamin K, components of the vitamin B complex, linoleic acid, and short chain fatty acids which are rapidly burned as energy. These fatty acids also allow easier absorption of ionic minerals such as calcium, magnesium and iron. To top it off, the gut flora also secrete digestive acids such as pyurvic and citric acids that aid in the rate of our metabolism.
Our microbial residents also protect us from foreign biological invaders and chemical substances that may otherwise harm us. When the bacterial colonies inside your colon and intestines are strong and healthy, they prevent encroaching bacteria from establishing a foothold. Similar to the enzymes that break down food, proteins and acids are secreted that defend against invading microbes and that decompose toxic substances.
To keep this impressive work going, recent scientific studies have also begun to uncover a fact that has been accepted by many health food advocates for a long time – the food we eat affects our brain and mental state. But to be more specific, the food we eat affects our gut bacteria, and our gut bacteria affect our brain. Scientists are calling it the “microbiota-gut-brain axis”. The microbes interact with our brain by way of metabolites (derived from our food) that are easily absorbed by the central nervous system. These metabolites can lead to optimized brain function that lift our mood and improve our body regulation. However, when we eat food that the microbes don’t enjoy (think highly processed, refined foods), than negative imbalances can be created that lead to mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, ADD, OCD, and may even contribute to diseases such as autism and Alzheimer’s.
A well known Russian neuroscientist, Natasha Campbell-McBride, discovered a condition known as Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS), in which people, specifically children, are impacted by the imbalance in their microbiome. The lack of certain bacteria in the belly contributes to an imbalance in the brain, leading to psychological disorders. McBride was able to treat and fully heal her autistic son by changing his diet to facilitate the growth of beneficial microbes (probiotics) in his digestive tract.
So these tiny but powerful allies are extremely important for our well-being. However, the majority of us have an unhealthy population of gut bacteria due to our modern diets and the presence of anti-biotics in the food chain. When we eat foods that have been highly processed, that contain refined sugars, refined flours, and oils, we are not providing the right nourishment for our gut microbes. Refined sugars and flours are converted quickly and easily to glucose and cause an increase in blood sugar levels – there is no actual nutrition. The gut microbes require more complex, natural substances in order to reap their benefits.
We also are constantly losing microbes through our own excrement. If we do not feed them properly or replenish them through our food, then the microbes will constantly be fighting an uphill battle to ward off other microbes and to deal with all of the other unnatural and toxic substances that we ingest (chlorinated water is the first thing that comes to mind).
This is why I am a huge advocate and lover of fermented food and beverages. Sauerkraut, kimchi, sourdough, yoghurt, kombucha, kefir, kvass, BEER…I’ll take all of them. Not only do they each have a unique flavor but their health benefits are legion. Fermented foods are loaded with nutrients, beneficial enzymes, and probiotics (ok well maybe not beer, but historically beer was a much healthier beverage). In fact the process of fermentation, known in this case as lactofermentation due to the dominance of the Lactobacilli sp., mimics the fermentation that occurs in your colon and intestines by your own passenger bacteria. Nutrients and vitamins are synthesized from plant fibers and proteins that would otherwise be inaccessible to you. By consuming fermented foods, you get a boost of those beneficial micro-organisms and enzymes that you already have or may even be lacking in. When fermented foods are taken before or during a meal, we give our metabolism a jump start by supplying extra digestive ammunition. It’s like deploying reinforcement battalions right before the battle begins (the battle for getting the most nutrition out of your meals!)
There are lots of resources on the internet that will teach you how to make your own ferments at home. I encourage all of you to do your own research! Of the ferments mentioned above, water and milk kefir are the simplest ferments to undertake, requiring the least amount of equipment. Kombucha is also rather easy make. In both of these cases you only need to find someone to supply you with the “mother” culture, either kefir “grains”, which look like tiny little balls of snot, or a kombucha SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast), which looks like an alien jellyblob. Sourdough is also easy, but requires more upkeep. Sauerkraut and kimchi require a few hours work initially, but nothing after that.
Whatever you choose to ferment (and I sincerely hope you will!) realize that you are entering into a most beneficial alliance with one of the most basic forms of life. Bacteria and fungi existed long before the dawn of plants and animals and will go on persisting long before we have vanished from this sphere. They are simple yet strong, tiny but tremendous. Life truly occurs at their level, and we are the fortunate ones who reap the benefits of their hard work.
So may all your little beings be healthy and happy. May you be bright and exuberant and joyous!
Thanks for reading. Love you with all my (bacterial) guts!
The Abundance Gnome
O’Hara, Ann M. et al., The gut flora as a forgotten organ. EMBO Reports, Vol. 7, 24 April 2006
Heijtz, Rochellys Diaz et al., Normal gut microbiota modulates brain development and behavior. PNAS, Vol. 108, 15 February 2011