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.
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.
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…
Your gut is the gateway to your immunity.”
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.
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 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].”
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.”
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.
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.