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Fermented Foods: How to ‘Culture’ Your Way to Optimal Health

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By Dr. Mercola

There is an abundance of nutritional therapies that can help you get to new levels of health. I've been advocating them for decades now, but there is one that I've found to have phenomenal benefits in your overall wellness: the introduction of fermented foods to your diet.

I'm so excited to share with you today the radically positive changes fermented or cultured foods can provide your body: how they can "heal and seal" your gut to optimize health or reverse disease, and how culturing your own veggies and foods can give you a jumpstart to achieving better health today.

Fermented Foods Are Abundant in Your Ancestor's Diet

Eating Fermented FoodsThe way our forefathers lived offers clues on how different cultures used fermented foods (like yogurt and sauerkraut) not only as food preservatives, but also as support for intestinal and overall health.      

History shows that:

  • During the Roman era, people consumed sauerkraut because of its taste and health benefits.
  • In ancient India, it was common to enjoy lassi, a pre-dinner yogurt drink. This traditional practice is anchored on the principle of using sour milk as a probiotic delivery system to the body.
  • Bulgarians are known for their high consumption of fermented milk and kefir, and for their high level of health.
  • Ukrainians consumed probiotics from a fermented food list that included raw yogurt, sauerkraut, and buttermilk.
  • Various Asian cultures ate pickled fermentations of cabbage, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash, and carrots, and consume these fermented treats until today.

Fermented foods are chock-full of probiotics or good bacteria. A myriad of research has demonstrated how the ideal balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut forms the foundation for physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Why a Fermented Food List?

Consuming traditionally fermented foods provide you a number of benefits, including:

  • Important nutrients. Some fermented foods are outstanding sources of essential nutrients such as vitamin K2, which help prevent arterial plaque buildup and heart disease. For instance, cheese curd is an excellent source of both probiotics and vitamin K2. Just half an ounce (15 grams) of natto daily can also provide all the K2 you'll need . Fermented food is also a potent producer of many B vitamins.
  • Optimizing your immune system. An estimated 80 percent of your immune system is actually located in your gut. Probiotics play a crucial role in the development and operation of the mucosal immune system in your digestive tract, and aid in the production of antibodies to pathogens. This makes a healthy gut a major factor in maintaining optimal health, as a robust immune system is your top defense system against all disease.
  • Detoxification. Fermented foods are some of the best chelators available. The beneficial bacteria in these foods are highly potent detoxifiers, capable of drawing out a wide range of toxins and heavy metals.
  • Cost-effectiveness. Adding a small amount of fermented food to each meal will give you the biggest bang for your buck. Why? Because they can contain 100 times more probiotics than a supplement!
  • Natural variety of microflora. As long as you vary the fermented and cultured foods you eat, you'll get a much wider variety of beneficial bacteria than you could ever get from a supplement.

What the State of Your Gut Tells About Your Overall Health

Probiotics in YogurtProbiotics, along with a host of other microorganisms, are so crucial to your health that researchers have compared them to "a newly recognized organ." Your microflora – a term used to describe the bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microbes that make up your microbial inner ecosystem – impact far more than your digestive tract.

Here are areas where your gut bacteria play key roles in:

  1. Behavior. A study published in Neurogastroenterology & Motility found that mice lacking in gut bacteria behave differently from normal mice, engaging in what would be referred to as "high-risk behavior." This altered behavior was accompanied by neurochemical changes in the mouse brain.
  2. In fact, your gut serves as your second brain. It produces more of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is known to have a positive influence on your mood, than your brain does.

  3. Gene expression. A probiotic-rich beverage has been shown to influence the activity of hundreds of your genes to help them express in a positive, disease-fighting way. This makes your gut health a very powerful variable of epigenetics, a cutting-edge field of medicine showing that your lifestyle plays a significant role in your genetic expression.
  4. Diabetes. According to a study from Denmark, bacterial population in the gut of diabetics differs from non-diabetics. According to the authors, the results of their study indicate that type 2 diabetes in humans is linked to compositional changes in intestinal microbiota.
  5. A healthy diet – low in sugar and grains; high in whole raw foods and fermented foods – allows your beneficial gut bacteria to flourish.

  6. Autism. Establishment of normal gut flora in the first 20 days or so of life is critical in appropriate maturation of your baby's immune system. Hence, babies with abnormal gut flora have compromised immune systems and are particularly at risk for developing ADHD, learning disabilities, and autism, especially if they are vaccinated before restoring balance to their gut flora. 
  7. Obesity. Probiotics may help fight obesity. Restoring your gut flora is therefore a crucial consideration if you're struggling to lose weight.

The GAPS Protocol by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride

Your gut is home to both good and bad bacteria, which outnumber the cells in your body by at least 10 to one.

The challenge is optimizing the bacterial population in your gut: striving for an ideal good to bad bacteria ratio. This can help them live in a beneficial, symbiotic relationship to help nourish you and fight disease.

This is where the GAPS Nutritional Program – which has also brought massive benefits to my own gut and overall health – comes in.

I started to become acquainted with the Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) Nutritional Program when I met Caroline Barringer, a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP), at the November 2011 Weston Price Wise Traditions event. There we had the opportunity to enjoy amazing fermented vegetables that her company prepared for dinner.

Caroline is one of the chief training partners of Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, a Russian-trained neurologist with a full-time medical practice in the United Kingdom, in her GAPS program.

Dr. McBride treats children and adults with autism, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, psychiatric disorders, immune disorders, and digestive problems using GAPS.

I am completely amazed by the principles of the GAPS, which introduces fermented foods and the "heal and seal" process that Dr. McBride has developed.

GAPS stands for "Gut and Psychology Syndrome," which talks about the functioning of your brain. According to Dr. McBride, any dysfunction of the brain is usually connected to what's going on in the digestive system.

GAPS also means "Gut and Physiology Syndrome," which talks about the functioning of the rest of your body. Here, we're talking about all forms of autoimmunity and inflammatory conditions:

Multiple sclerosis Type 1 diabetes Rheumatoid Osteoarthritis
Lupus Chron's disease Ulcerative colitis Chronic skin conditions
Kidney problems Urinary conditions Allergic and atopic conditions Degenerative skin conditions
Chronic fatigue syndrome Fibromyalgia Myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) Inflammatory bowel dieases

It would be wise for you to implement the GAPS program if you're suffering from any of these diseases, or practically any other health issue. Dr. McBride explains:

"Once you heal and seal your gut lining, and once you make your digestive system healthy and working properly again, you'll be surprised how many various symptoms in your body originated from your digestive system. Most [symptoms] start disappearing, because the health and the disease are usually born inside your digestive system. That's where they originate from."

The GAPS Nutritional Protocol intends to restore the integrity of your gut lining. Its dietary component consists of easily digestible foods that are dense in nutrition, including fermented foods. Learn more about the GAPS diet.

The Phenomenal Health Benefits of Fermented Vegetables

Fermented vegetables are a mainstay in the GAPS diet.

But whether you're suffering from GAPS or not, cultured or fermented vegetables will do great wonders for your health, as shown in their presence in virtually all native and traditional diets.

Caroline, who has been involved in nutrition for more than 20 years now, recommends eating about a quarter to a half-cup (2 to 4 ounces) of fermented vegetables or other cultured foods such as raw yogurt with one to three meals per day.

Remember, though, that cultured foods are very efficiency detoxifiers – you may experience a "healing crisis" or detox symptoms if you introduce too many of these foods at once.

Begin with very small servings, then work your way up to the quarter- to half-cup serving size. This gives your intestinal microbiota the chance of adjusting.

According to Caroline:

"... Start slow, and that way you won't have a headache or you won't have that outbreak... you will start to see yourself eliminating more naturally, and the proper stool will form, the shape will change, and it will be all be beneficial to you. Let your innate intelligence guide you, and if you see something or feel something that's not so right, don't dismiss the cultured foods and say, "Oh, that was bad for me, it caused a reaction." That's not what your body's telling you. Your body's telling you, 'Slow down.'"

Fermenting Foods and Vegetables It is ideal to include a variety of fermented foods and beverages in your diet, because each food with inoculate your gut with a mix of different microorganisms. There are many fermented foods you can easily make at home, including:

  • Cultured vegetables, including pureed baby foods
  • Chutneys
  • Condiments, such as salsa and mayonnaise
  • Cultured dairy, such as yogurt, kefir, and sour cream
  • Fish, such as mackerel and Swedish gravlax

Fermenting Your Vegetables

You can do wild fermentation, or allowing whatever is on the vegetable or fruit that you're culturing to simply take hold and culture the food. However, this method is very time-consuming.

It is suggested that you inoculate the food using a starter culture to speed up the fermentation process.

Here's a summary of Caroline's recipe for making your own fermented vegetables:

  • Shred and cut your chosen veggies.
  • Juice some celery. This is used as the brine, as it contains natural sodium and keeps the vegetables anaerobic. This eliminates the need for sea salt, which prevents growth of pathogenic bacteria.
  • Pack the veggies and celery juice along with the inoculants (starter culture, such as kefir grains, whey, or commercial starter powder, all of which can be used for vegetables) into a 32-ounce wide-mouthed canning jar. A kraut pounder tool can be helpful to pack the jar and eliminate any air pockets.
  • Top with a cabbage leaf, tucking it down the sides. Make sure the veggies are completely covered with celery juice and that the juice is all the way to the top of the jar to eliminate trapped air.
  • Seal the jar store in a warm, slightly moist place for 24 to 96 hours, depending on the food being cultured. Ideal temperature range is 68-75 degrees Fahrenheit; 85 degrees max. Remember, heat kills the microbes!
  • When done, store in the refrigerator to slow down the fermentation process.

Learn more tips and tricks in fermenting your veggies.

Are You Being Conned by Commercially Processed Fermented Foods?  

Your fermented food choices are not limited to vegetables. Here's a quick look at some of the ideal options out there:

Fermented vegetables of all kinds (cabage, carrots, kale, collards, celery spiced with herbs like ginger and garlic) Lassi (an Indian yogurt drink, traditionally enjoyed before dinner) Tempeh
Fermented raw milk such as kefir or yogurt, but NOT commercial versions, which typically do not have live cultures and are loaded with sugars that fee pathogenic bacteria Natto Kim chee

However, it is important that you're aware of the BIG difference between healthy fermented foods and commercially processed ones.

Fermentation is an inconsistent process, and is more of an art than a science. Commercial food processors developed techniques to help standardize more consistent yields. These include pasteurization, which effectively destroys the naturally occurring probiotics.  

Some olives, too, are not generally fermented; they are simply treated with lye to remove the bitterness, packed in salt, and canned. Olive producers can now hold olives in salt-free brines using an acidic solution of lactic acid, acetic acid, sodium benzoate, and potassium sorbate – a far cry from the old, time-tested, natural lactic acid-fermenting method of salt alone.

Simply put, some pickles are simply packed in salt, vinegar, and are pasteurized.

Beware of some "probiotic" yogurts, too. Most of them that you find in the grocery are NOT recommended for many reasons: they are pasteurized (and are linked to the problems of pasteurized milk products), and typically contain added sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, dyes, and/or artificial sweeteners, which can be detrimental to your health. 

How About a High-Quality Probiotic Supplement

High-Quality Probiotic Supplement If you don't enjoy the taste of fermented foods, taking a probiotic supplement can be your next best option.

But don't give up on fermented foods too easily: start with small amounts like a half-teaspoon, and use them as a condiment added to your food, like a salad dressing.

I generally do not advocate taking a lot of supplements, but a high-quality probiotic is an exception if you truly don't want to consume fermented foods. Your probiotic supplement should fulfill the following quality and efficacy criteria:  

  • The bacteria strains in the product must be able to survive your stomach acid and bile, so that they reach your intestines alive in adequate numbers
  • The bacteria strains must have health-promoting features
  • The probiotic activity must be guaranteed throughout the entire production process, storage period and shelf life of the product

Through my years of clinical practice, I've discovered that no single probiotic supplement works for everyone. But many individuals seem to respond positively to Lactobacillus sporogenes more than any other probiotic, so that is a great place to start.

Additional Resources

Getting started on fermented foods need not be a difficult, time-consuming affair. Give it a chance by starting with small amounts and working your way up in quantity.

Here are useful links and resources you can use to know what you need to know about this wonderful way of replenishing the good bacteria in your gut and reclaiming your health:

Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride

This book provides all the necessary information about the GAPS protocol: the dietary component, the probiotic supplements needed to reseed your gut with healthy bacteria, and detoxification.

Dr. McBride's Blog

This site contains articles and videos relating to a wide variety of health problems that can be helped with the GAPS diet.

Immunitrition

Learn more about cultured and fermented foods – and find information about how to become a Certified Healing Foods Specialist – on this site.

Cultured Vegetables

Find here the range of culture activators, cultured vegetables, probiotic beverages, books and videos, and other products offered by Caroline Barringer.

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