You’ve probably been hearing a lot about probiotics on TV, the internet and at your local grocery store lately. Over the past few years, new studies and research around the globe have been shedding light on the important role played by “good” bacterial living on and inside your body. In fact, up to 80% of your body’s immune system is linked to the good probiotic bacterial flora living in your gut and on your skin. Your gut flora also plays a critical role in making nutrients your body needs to survive and be healthy.
So mainstream medicine is finally beginning to wake up to what the natural health movement has known for decades: good bacteria, or probiotics, play a crucial role to your health and immune system. In fact, beneficial bacteria are one of the key things that allow your body to fend off and heal from all sorts of diseases, especially infections like Staph or MRSA. But while probiotic supplements have gotten lots of attention lately, relatively few people know of the amazing health benefits of fermented foods, which are packed with a natural source of probiotics and come at a fraction of the cost.
Probiotics in food
There are many probiotic supplements on the market today that come in pill and capsule form. Some of these supplements can be very helpful for rebuilding or reseeding the good bacterial flora in your gut. But long before supplements were invented, people used to get their daily probiotics from the foods they ate. In fact, traditionally fermented foods can be packed with literally trillions of beneficial, immune-boosting probiotic bacteria, many times more than the strongest probiotic supplements.
Yogurt is probably the best known food that may contain live probiotic cultures. I say “may contain” because most commercial yogurt has been pasteurized, killing off most or all of the beneficial probiotics. Store-bought yogurts are typically highly processed, artificially sweetened or contain lots of sugar. But traditional, non-pasteurized yogurt can be an excellent source of probiotic cultures.
Traditional yogurt is not the only probiotic food. Traditional unpasteurized versions of butter, cottage cheese, buttermilk, Kefir, miso, tempeh and kombucha tea are other probiotic foods making a comeback in many natural grocery stores. And, traditional sauerkraut is one of the best known fermented foods – and one of the easiest to make, too.
Fermented foods forgotten
Historically, fermented or cultured foods were a common part of most people’s diets. In fact, for thousands of years fermentation was one of the best ways to keep foods preserved before the advent of refrigeration. Until recent decades, probiotic-rich fermented foods provided huge numbers of beneficial bacteria to “reseed” people’s gut flora. But today, our healthy heritage of eating fermented foods has been nearly forgotten.
We’ve been programed to believe that all bacteria are bad and that all bacteria must be killed in our foods. So modern foods are processed and pasteurized to remove all the bacteria, including the good bacteria we need to be healthy and fight off infections. To add insult to injury, processed foods contain fewer nutrients and are full of harmful, probiotic-killing ingredients, such as artificial dyes, flavors, preservatives, and sweeteners.
Common probiotic “killers”
It’s no wonder modern societies struggle with epidemics like diabetes, heart disease and recurring infections. The probiotics we need to stay healthy are being systematically killed in our food and depleted from our bodies. Below are the most common ways you can deplete your gut of healthy, immune-strengthening probiotic flora:
- Taking antibiotic drugs (especially without probiotics).
- Eating processed foods.
- Eating antibiotic-fed beef and other antibiotic contaminated meat.
- Stress and lack of sleep.
- Many prescription medications, including acid blockers, NSAIDS and corticosteroids.
- Exposure to antibacterial ingredients and environmental toxins from foods, personal care products, cleaning agents and other day-to-day sources.
- Infections and other disease conditions that affect your flora.
What most people don’t realize is that probiotics in food naturally keep the “bad bacteria” in check. By killing off the good bacteria in our foods, in our digestive system and on our skin, we leave the door wide open for bad, disease-causing bacteria to get a foothold. A great way to swing the balance back in your favor is to say no to processed foods and embrace traditionally fermented foods as a windfall for our health.
Fermented food health benefits
It’s easy to replenish your gut’s healthy balance of probiotic flora by eating more fermented foods. More and more natural food stores are carrying traditionally fermented foods. And many fermented foods are also easy to make, requiring inexpensive ingredients and basic kitchen ware. Below are some of the main benefits from adding traditionally fermented foods to your diet:
- Trillions of “good” probiotic bacteria in every tablespoon, many times more than any probiotic supplements.
- Wide range of different beneficial bacteria for maximum biodiversity of your gut flora.
- More economical than buying probiotic supplements, especially when home-made.
- Many health benefits, including weight loss, mental clarity, and increased energy. Many chronic diseases conditions also respond by eating fermented foods.
- Make delicious side dishes or condiments at meal time.
While the health benefits of fermented foods are many, it’s best to start slowly if your body is unaccustomed to fermented foods. Changing your gut flora too quickly can trigger a “die off” or detoxification of bad bacteria or waste products in your body. Detox symptoms can be uncomfortable and prolonged if you make diet changes too quickly.
It may take a while to begin seeing the full benefits of eating more fermented foods. While it’s common for people to experience more energy and other positive results soon after adding fermented foods to their diet, it may take several months to begin seeing major shifts in a long-standing health condition.
Maintaining optimal gut flora, and ‘reseeding’ your gut with fermented foods and probiotics when you’re taking an antibiotic, may be one of the most important steps you can take to improve your health. If you aren’t eating fermented foods, you most likely need to supplement with a probiotic on a regular basis, especially if you’re eating a lot of processed foods. Poor diet in general, along with a course of antibiotics extols a heavy price, as it tends to wipe out the beneficial bacteria in your gut, giving pathogens free rein to proliferate unchecked.
To your health,
Microbiologist and Natural Health Expert