Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily the Health & Wellness Committee, and are not a substitute for talking to your doctor.
Probiotics are all the rage! Is it a fad? Is there any validity to the benefit to our overall health of “good” bacteria in fermented foods? I have to admit, I have totally bought into it: I have a sourdough starter in my refrigerator that I keep forgetting to feed. I also have a ginger bug that I take out every so often to make ginger ale — I swear drinking it helps when I have a stomachache. Sitting on my dining room table is my continuous-brew kombucha. I have acquired a taste for kimchi. I have even had some of my sister’s homemade beet kvass. But I too have wondered if it actually makes a difference.
The fermentation of foods is not a new phenomenon. Cultures have been fermenting foods for thousands of years. Fermentation was used to preserve foods and lengthen shelf life before the invention of refrigerators. You may have heard of some of these international foods: Lassi from India, natto from Japan, kimchi from Korea, kvass from Russia; fermented and leavened bread from the Egyptians; sauerkraut from European countries. And kombucha and similar fermented beverages are produced all over the world.
With all of these different types of fermented foods from so many different places, it’s no wonder it has been well-researched.
Élie Metchnikoff, who is known for the study of microbes and the immune system, theorized that harmful bacteria was the cause of age-related illnesses and that consuming good bacteria found in sour milk could prolong one’s life. This was based on his observation of Bulgarians, who lived to the age of 87 on average. They consumed lots of fermented milk and yogurt. His discovery of Bulgarian bacillus, also known as Lactobacillus bulgaricus, inspired research into the benefits of friendly bacteria.
Today, studies show that eating fermented foods helps maintain a healthy gut flora. This is important because a healthy gut aids digestion and increases vitamin and mineral absorption. It can promote clear skin, elevate mood, help maintain a healthy weight and improve the body’s overall metabolic health. Probiotics have been shown to help control inflammation, remove toxins from the body and fight candida, bad pathogens and harmful bacteria.
But what about those who don’t like kombucha, kvass, yogurt or ANY type of fermented vegetable? Or those with acute conditions, who may benefit from larger or more concentrated doses of probiotics than they can get from a helping of live sauerkraut? Are supplements a good alternative?
Many of the studies on the benefits of probiotics are based on supplements, because they are easier to control than fermented foods. Probiotic supplements can be a viable alternative to fermented foods. For instance, they can aid in recovery from acute conditions such as food poisoning or diarrhea, and can also help to recolonize the intestine after taking antibiotics.
Whether you choose fermented foods or probiotic supplements, getting good bacteria into your body and maintaining a healthy gut is a good idea.
Cheers! I raise my glass of beet kvass to you!
Jennifer Hall is an integrative and functional nutritionist and health coach. She is the owner of Balanced Holistic Living LLC and treats clients with a wide range of conditions using a comprehensive holistic approach focused on identifying root causes of symptoms to support overall health and well-being. Her website is balancedholisticliving.com.