HAPPY GUT Blog

The Benefits of Fermentation

The Benefits of Fermentation? An Essential Guide

BY SUMMER BOCK

 

Last week, in my first of three guest blogs for Happy Gut Life, I introduced you to the wonderful world of fermentation — a world that has drastically changed my life for the better. What started as a simple method for preserving food has stuck around and decades later, the world is still obsessed with fermentation. That’s no mistake — it’s because fermentation’s health benefits are too strong to ever go out of style.

I’ll be honest: As a fermentationist and the creator of my own course on fermentation, I could talk about the benefits of ferments indefinitely. I’ll only be skimming the surface here; but I know I’ll still leave you convinced that incorporating functional ferments into your life is a no-brainer for so many reasons.

Let’s dive in!

What are the benefits of ferments?

Functional ferments are famous for improving digestion and gut health, but that doesn’t mean their benefits end there. As you already know from being a loyal reader of the Happy Gut Life blog, the health status of our gut microbiome impacts many aspects of our health, including our mood and energy levels.

Therefore, while functional ferments primarily work on the gut,
their benefits go far beyond digestion.

In my mind, the benefits of functional ferments can be loosely divided into three categories: digestion, immunity, and brain health.

1. Digestion

When it comes to digestion, incorporating ferments can improve symptoms like bloating, constipation, nausea, and diarrhea but also more serious digestive issues. For example, research has established a strong connection between the gut microbiome and inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. These diseases are characterized by a loss of diversity in the gut microbiome. Ferments can help promote re-diversification of the gut microbiome.

Beyond that, functional elements can also help with nutrient absorption. How? The enzymes that break down fiber and make it more bioavailable. As they’re breaking down that fiber, they also release byproducts like butyrate (a short-chain fatty acid essential for good health) and nutrients like vitamin B and vitamin K.

Speaking of byproducts, acetic acid —  a byproduct of fermentation that provides the tarte vinegar flavor you’ll notice in most ferments — works to lower our glucose response to protect blood sugar levels. It also helps acidify the stomach, and increases the release of bile and digestive enzymes, which help you digest fat and assimilate harder to digest nutrients. Knowing this, it’s no surprise to learn that researchers are looking into the possibility that eating fermented foods could help prevent the metabolic changes that occur with type 2 diabetes.

Clearly, fermented foods help the gut in more ways than one.

Microbiome Health Venn Diagram

2. Immunity

Here’s the truth: There are always going to be pathogenic microorganisms slipping through your nose and mouth and into your gut. The key is to be resilient enough to fight them off. That’s where the beneficial bacteria in functional ferments come in; they keep those inevitable bad bacteria from proliferating, growing, and making you sick. This is called competitive inhibtion — the growth of favorable bacteria produces factors, even antimicrobial proteins, that inhibit the growth of other unfavorable bacteria and yeast.

Eating functional ferments is all about building the resilience of your gut. And considering that fact that the vast majority of your immune system is in your gut, it means increasing the resiliency of your immune system in general, too. Remember…

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Your gut is the gateway to your immunity.”

Dr. Pedre Signature

This applies to long-term health, such as fending off chronic inflammation and preventing autoimmunity — gut bacterial imbalances have been connected to a wide range of autoimmune diseases, including lupus and arthritis — but also in acute situations.

For example, if I feel that I’m about to get sick digestively from something I eat, I start increasing my intake of ferments and it often prevents it from developing into something bigger.  Research has also connected dysbiosis, an imbalance in gut bacteria, to allergies and asthma, other immune conditions with a connection to the health and state of your gut lining and gut microbiome.

3. Brain Health

Brain health is all about neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity describes the ability to adapt to a changing environment. It also is what’s behind your ability to learn and remember things. Without neuroplasticity, dementia sets in. And not surprisingly, there is a powerful connection between the gut and brain when it comes to supporting brain health.

Of the three main benefits of fermentation, this is probably the one I love most. There’s a whole concept called microbial endocrinology, which is the study of how microorganisms and human cells communicate back and forth using our neurotransmitters, hormones, and other chemicals.  For example, bacteria help with the synthesis of serotonin in the gut and GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps us feel calm and relaxed, is also influenced by specific bacteria. This fascinates me to no end — bacteria are single-celled organisms with no nervous systems and yet, they can produce neurotransmitters and respond to them. It’s like these chemicals are text messages and the bacteria are on AT&T and human cells are on Verizon [just randomly, no favorites here]. They’re not exactly the same but they still manage to communicate.

What’s most remarkable in my opinion is that butyrate, one of the short-chain fatty acids resulting from the bacterial fermentation of fiber, is a powerful agent of neuroplasticity. It gets absorbed through your digestive lining and then circulates through your body, where it crosses the blood brain barrier, and then enters your neurons to turn on genes involved in memory formation. Take a pause and absorb that!!!

Before we move on, I want to make clear that it’s not JUST the probiotic that makes ferments so beneficial. And that’s why I consider them more beneficial than a probiotic supplement.

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Functional ferments are the ultimate gut-healing superfood. "

Why? Because they not only provide beneficial bacteria, they also provide natural fiber — which is the food that helps the probiotics grow and thrive — as well as by products, like acetic acid and lactic acid, that will feed them and supercharge their ability to provide health benefits.

What are the different functional ferments and their benefits?

Last week we learned that there are a few different classes of functional ferments; this week, we’ll dive into each class and talk about some of the specific benefits of each, starting with…

Lacto Ferment Benefit

Lacto ferments are a great source of probiotics. In fact, I would consider them the premier source of probiotics, which means they will have awesome benefits for the immune system. One example of a lacto ferment with incredible health benefits is Kimchi.

Kimchi is fermented cabbage and studies have shown that it has effects against the flu. There’s even some research suggesting that the frequent consumption of fermented cabbage in certain countries could explain some of the differences in COVID-19 rates in those countries. For example, the authors of a study published in May wrote that: “Foods with potent antioxidant or anti ACE activity—like uncooked or fermented cabbage —are largely consumed in low-death rate European countries, Korea and Taiwan, and might be considered in the low prevalence of deaths [from COVID-19].”

Legume Ferment Benefit

2. Legume Ferment Benefit

Fermenting legumes is less about creating a probiotic-rich food (leave that to lacto ferments!) than it is about making legumes more digestible. Fermenting legumes breaks down phytic acids (a damaging acid on their surface skin that inhibits the absorption of important nutrients like iron) and lectin proteins, which as we learned last month in The Lectin Paradox blog series, will make them healthier and easier to digest.

That means less gas and bloating after eating it and it will also mean that you absorb more of the protein in legumes, so you’ll feel more satiated. One example of a legume ferment is tempeh.

“I’ve found that even people that are otherwise allergic to soy can often tolerate tempeh… because it’s FERMENTED.”

Grain Ferment Benefit

3. Grain Ferment Benefit

Much like legumes, the fermentation process for grains reduces phytic acid and gluten, and infuses the grain with probiotics and other organisms and yeasts that make it more digestible. Probably the most famous example of a grain ferment is sourdough bread. And while I wouldn’t go as far as to say that sourdough is a health food, if you’re choosing sourdough over other types of bread you are making a healthier choice. However, be mindful of the length of fermentation time, because most store-bought sourdough breads are not fermented the traditional French 72 hrs before they are baked, making them less friendly to your gut.

Beverage Ferment Benefit

4. Beverage Ferment Benefit

Beverage ferments are probably the most commonly consumed ferments, with kombucha at the top of the popularity list. I do think kombucha is a great introduction to fermented foods for many people, but I’ll be honest: I have mixed feelings about kombucha’s health benefits for a few reasons. First, kombucha wasn’t designed to be consumed in 16-ounces at once. (I recommend keeping it to 4-ounces every day.) It also contains trace amounts of caffeine, alcohol, and sugar, which are three of the most addictive substances on the planet. These substances spell bad news for your gut microbiome, meaning that if you suffer from a dysbiosis you may not react well to them. That brings me to a very…

IMPORTANT POINT: Not all functional ferments work for everyone.

And that’s why I’m giving away access to my Chronic Health Conditions & Fermentation Pairings Chart

… so you can find the best beverage ferment for you and go beyond the common cookie-cutter protocol to balance the microbiome (that doesn’t work for everyone).

As a fermentationist, I often get asked the question:

“What positive side effects will I notice first, after starting to consume fermented foods?”

My answer to this is always the same.

Within the first week, almost all of my clients notice two significant changes:

1. Sugar cravings start to subside.

This is because certain bad bacteria live on sugar and can actually cause you to crave it. When you start crowding those bacteria out, your sugar cravings naturally subside — no willpower required.

2. Bowel movements increase in frequency.

They will become more regular and more frequent, which will help them feel less bloated so they can stop reaching for their spanx.

At the end of the day,

the benefits of functional ferments prove that we have a far more intimate relationship with microbes in our food than we’ve been led to believe.

Think about it: When you eat a carrot, it gets broken down into small pieces, absorbed by your body and eventually, it becomes part of you. Can you say the same for a skincare product?

In truth, we’re providing a home for these organisms and instead of respecting them, in our “advanced” world we are often desolating them with herbicides, medications, chemicals, and preservatives contaminating our food, water, and environment. Ironically, what we use to provide a perceived benefit in one respect, ends up hurting us in the long run.

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time we started showing that relationship the respect and care it deserves. It’s time to slow down and allow living foods to be your medicine. That’s what functional ferments are all about.

Next week, I’ll be providing a super-practical guide to getting started with fermentation at home, which in my opinion is the best way to really reap the benefits of functional ferments.

What is Fermentation? An Essential Guide

What is Fermentation? An Essential Guide

BY SUMMER BOCK

Guest Blogger, Summer Bock

As a fermentationist who trains people on functional ferments, the creator of my own course on fermentation —  The Fermentationist™ Certification Program — and Happy Gut Life’s guest content contributor for the month of September, it’s no surprise that I get asked “What is fermentation?” all the time.

It’s also probably no surprise that I could write an encyclopedia just to answer this one, seemingly simple, question.

If you’re surprised that fermentation could be that complex, you’re not alone. The Wikipedia summary of the science and history of fermentation is watered-down at best. Most educational resources on fermentation fail to grasp the magic we all experience the first time you chop up vegetables, stuff them into a jar, let them bubble at room temperature on your countertop, and then consumed the final product — filled with living organisms, enzymes, organic acids, bioactive metabolites, and activated vitamins.

And so, this week — the first of a 3-part series on fermentation — I’m going to teach you all about fermentation, what it really is, what it means to me, and what it can mean to you and your health.

A Background on Fermentation

Our ancestors depended on fermented foods to survive. Sauerkraut used to be an essential source of vitamin C, and Captain James Cook received the Great Copley Medal for his observation that sauerkraut was an effective preventative food for scurvy by providing vitamin C to sailors who previously died from the “plague of the sea.”

(It’s actually the second oldest food preservation method and there’s evidence of fermentation from over 10,000 years ago.) Dairy kefir dates back many centuries to the shepherds of the Caucasus mountains. They discovered that fresh milk carried in leather pouches would occasionally ferment into an effervescent beverage that was preserved much longer than fresh milk.

Fermentation was originally developed as a way to preserve food using beneficial bacteria.

Clearly, fermentation has a long, rich role in human history. And these days, fermentation is still a huge deal. Decades after we no longer needed it for food preservation purposes — or for preventing the severe vitamin C deficiency in sailors — fermentation is still all around us. Clearly, something must be special about fermentation for this technique to be protected and passed down by generations, cherished by families, and praised by health experts across the globe for its health benefits.

Personally, I wasn’t always this passionate about fermented foods and the little microbes that inhabit them. You see, I used to be very sick.

“I struggled with rashes, fatigue, anxiety, bloating, IBS, food intolerances, and panic attacks.”

I was a barely-functioning hot mess. I spent my childhood popping antibiotics a few times every year for strep throat and when I was 20 years old, it got to the point where I could only eat about 30 foods without a reaction. (This is back before you could Google gut health and find Dr. Pedre’s website.) One of the many doctors along my path recommended probiotics, which I hadn’t heard of before.

Then, I started taking the probiotics and everything changed.

My food was fully digested, my bloated belly calmed down, and I started going to the bathroom 2 to 3 times per day like clockwork.  As a trained herbalist, I asked myself, “what is the whole food version of probiotics?” — I knew they weren’t popping white capsules of powder made in a lab. 

Around the same time, I lived with a Korean family in San Francisco that always had two, 5-gallon buckets of kimchi — a traditional Korean food made of fermented cabbage and radish — in their fridge. All of a sudden, I had my answer.

Fermented Foods

Fermented foods were the whole food version of probiotic supplements.

The only problem was that at the time, fermented foods were not available in many grocery stores. If I wanted the health benefits of fermented foods, I had to learn to make them myself. And that’s when I began to understand what fermentation really is.

What is Fermentation?

More than its role in food preservation history,

fermentation is really about the ability to create your own living medicine.

Normally, you eat food and it breaks down into nutrients that your body either absorbs or passes through your system and out of your body. But with fermentation, there are an extra few steps in between. The invisible microbes in fermented foods and the many beneficial bacteria already living in your gut — called probiotics(from the Greek “pro” meaning “for” and “biotic” meaning “life” — also break down the fiber in the food that you eat. And when the bacteria break down these fibers, they release byproducts that the body needs to function optimally.

As you can see, having plenty of beneficial bacteria in the gut is a great way to support optimal health and digestion — and fermentation is how you safeguard your gut ecosystem.

As I researched fermented foods, I quickly learned that the basic formula to create fermentation is simple:

Food + cultures (microbes) + time = fermentation

Fermentation CrockFor example, to make sauerkraut you chop cabbage (which has naturally occurring bacteria on the leaves), add salt, and tamp it down into a crock to create an anaerobic environment, which allows the naturally occuring bacteria to start fermenting. Within a short period of time, you have sauerkraut.

A crock is the most widely-used, as well as common term, for the stoneware or ceramic vessel we ferment foods in.

What amazes me is that during this process, multiple strains of probiotic bacteria are growing and multiplying invisibly in the crock. The finished product of raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut contains around 13 different kinds of friendly bacteria. One example is Lactobacillus plantarum, which is renowned for its ability to keep pathogenic bacteria at bay. It also breaks down histamine, which is great for allergy-sufferers.

Some fermented foods require starter cultures in order to transform them.

Kombucha, water kefir, dairy kefir, and red wine vinegar are examples of fermented foods that use starter cultures, which are called a Symbiotic Community Of Bacteria and Yeasts (or SCOBYs).

SCOBY’s cannot be created by humans. We discovered them and subsequently handed them down for thousands of years. For example, Kefir SCOBYs were passed down from generation to generation among the tribes of Caucasus and considered a source of family wealth. Other examples of SCOBYs include the kombucha mother or the vinegar pellicle, which most people get from a friend or family member because it’s been passed down, hand to hand, for generations until it got to you.

Delicious Functional Ferments

We’ve mentioned Kefir and sauerkraut already, but there are a ton of delicious functional ferments that you can experiment with, including:

Lacto-Ferments

Kimchi

Kvass

Pickles

Sauerkraut

Pickled Carrots

Dilly Beans

Yogurt

Legume Ferments

Tempeh

Miso

Tamari

Soy sauce

Idlis
(A fermented rice and bean paste that’s turned into a fermented biscuit)

Grains Ferments

Idlis

Injera
(An Ethiopian flatbread)

Sourdough

Fermented Beverages

Kombucha

Coconut kefir

Water Kefir

Dairy Kefir

Kvass
(A fermented Slavic and Baltic beverage commonly made from rye bread.)

Incorporating these foods into your diet, whether you make them at home or buy them, is a great way to make sure that your gut ecosystem is fully supported with beneficial bacteria.

Microbes and Humans: An Invisible Friendship

In order to understand how the ferments above impact human health, let’s take this conversation out of the microscopic realm and talk about something we can see…wolves. An unexpected result occurred in Yellowstone National Park when the once-endangered wolves were reintroduced to the forest. Prior to the reintroduction of wolves, the deer population had overtaken the park.

Due to the overpopulation of deer in the park, rivers and creek banks were eroding, because the animals were over-grazing the grass. Turns out the grass roots hold the soil in place. As a result, the rivers were getting wider and wider, as the soil was displaced downstream, and beavers no longer were able to build dams. Basically, adding the one predator — wolves — had caused a massive shift in the balance that kept the Yellowstone ecosystem in harmony.

Shortly after the wolves were released back into the wild, the rivers changed. The erosion reversed. All because the wolves were keeping the deer population under control, and the beavers came back.

Probiotics are like wolves. They keep the other organisms in check. In the gut, certain bacteria (like the deer) are normal inhabitants of the gut, but if left unchecked, they can grow out of control and cause problems. For example, Lactobacillus plantarum, one of the important strains of bacteria found in raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut, is one of the wolves of the gut…keeping “deer-like bacteria” E. coli and Candida albicans under control.

Human Gut Ecosystem Comparison

Your gut is basically an ecosystem that functions symbiotically in much the same way as bigger ecosystems do.

You will never be able to fully see the magic that is happening inside your gut when you eat fermented food. But I’m going to do my best to help you appreciate the magic and wonder of it all this month. Through knowledge of the invisible world of bacteria in our food, Fermentationists learn to appreciate the magic of the relationships that humans have with microbes.

In part two of this series, I’ll break the fundamental rule of magic and pull back the curtain to let you see exactly how the trick is done. Next week, you will learn the benefits of fermentation, which ferments are best for you and which ones you might want to limit or avoid altogether. 

And if you can’t wait to start fermenting foods so you can improve your gut health, alongside the Happy Gut® Programs Dr. Pedre has put together to restore the gut microbiome and reverse leaky gut, then you can get started right away!

Get the Lacto-Ferment Module

You can also learn more about The Fermentationist™ Certification Program to go to the next level when ready.

Edward Farnworth, the author of a book titled The Handbook of Fermented Functional Foods, put it best when he wrote that “Fermentation consists of the transformation of simple raw materials into a range of value-added products by utilizing the phenomena of the growth of microorganisms and their activities on various substrates. This means that knowledge of microorganisms is essential to understand the process of fermentation.”

How amazing we can take the process of food spoiling and use it to our advantage for its incredible health benefits! Stay tuned to learn more in the next blog post.

Happy Gut® Slaw

Happy Gut® Slaw

Happy Gut® Slaw

Pro- and Prebiotic, Fiber-rich Lunch Salad

Ingredients
  • ½ head small purple cabbage, roughly chopped 
  • ¼ c. turmeric kraut
  • 1 tbsp sunflower seeds (sprouted preferred)
  • 1 tbsp pumpkin seeds (roasted or sprouted preferred)
  • ½ green apple, cubed
  • ½ red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 tbsp tahini 
  • 1 clove chopped garlic
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 ½ tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt and cracked pepper (to taste)  
  • *optional grilled protein (your choice)
Instructions
  1. Mix cabbage, kraut, sunflower & pumpkin seeds, apple, and red pepper together in a bowl. 
  2. Mix the tahini, garlic, lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper in a bowl. 
  3. Add dressing to the slaw and fold until completely mixed. 
  4. *Serve over your favorite grilled protein.