Paleo isn’t a fad; it’s a lifestyle that’s all about optimality. And to be honest, a true Paleo lifestyle wouldn’t be complete without fermented foods – they are the missing link to every diet.
Whatever health goals we might have would be achieved with expedited results by learning about these miracle foods and of course, implementing them into our lives. The thought of eating a fermented food alone might be hard to swallow if you’re not acquainted with their alchemical power. Getting to know the extraordinary benefits behind these foods is the first step toward inviting them into our lives.
What Are Fermented Foods?
What exactly are fermented foods? You most commonly know of fermented foods as yogurt, sauerkraut, beer, cheese, and wine. In a few words, they are common foods – milk, cabbage, or grains – that have undergone and alchemical process of fermentation, but more on this later.
Fermented foods have been around for thousands of years – they were the original “antibiotics”. These foods are rich in lactobacilli (beneficial bacteria) enzymes, vitamins and minerals, making them ideal foods for longevity.
These foods are favorites among the longest living people such as the Hunza, Turkish, Bulgarian and Japanese cultures. They have been known for their healing properties and pack a tangy and delicious taste.
Because of their rich Vitamin C content fermented vegetables have been used to prevent scurvy and aid the immune system since long ago. For centuries, the Chinese cultured cabbage to ensure a supply of greens in their diet year round. To say the least, these foods have been long cherished as a staple form of health insurance.
The Best Fermented Foods
Not all fermented foods are created equally. Choosing the right types of fermented foods will make all the difference in the benefits you reap. Commercial ads for yogurts for example lead us to believe that it is the yogurt that aids our health. Really, it’s the friendly bacteria – probiotics – that are responsible for good health.
The trouble with the majority of commercial fermented foods is that many of them have been high-heated, pasteurized and prepared in untraditional ways – creating a food that is far from optimal. They are much higher in sugar, alcohol, and because of the heating process have lost their vital essence – probiotic bacteria.
Here are a few traditional fermented foods to consider:
- Various raw cultured vegetables (sauerkraut, kimchi, any variety of vegetables)
- Raw cultured vegetable juices (beet kvass)
- Raw coconut kefir
- Raw cultured butter
- Raw goat milk kefir
- Raw Apple Cider Vinegar
What makes a superior fermented food is the quality of ingredients and the fermentation process. The food listed above are all raw quality – meaning they are unpasteurized and unheated – containing all their nutrients, enzymes and of course, beneficial bacterial. Why you’ll see kefir on the list and not yogurt is because yogurt has to be heated, therefore, losing its enzymes.
Choosing the “best” fermented foods also starts with choosing the best ingredients. Always choose organic and local foods when possible. However, if the ingredients aren’t organic, using a proper starter culture will reduce or eliminate any pesticides or other contaminants. These two aspects in place, what also makes an ideal fermented food comes down to the uniqueness of one’s digestive health. For example, natto and miso may aggravate yeast and viral infections and therefore are best consumed once those issues have been handled. Otherwise, they are very healing foods.
The Fermentation Process
As we know, not all ferments are created equally. Aside from choosing high-quality ingredients it’s important to take a look at the fermentation process when choosing the right type of fermented food. There are two main ways to ferment a food, wild fermentation or culturing.
Wild fermentation is just that – wild. There is just no way of knowing what bacteria or yeast you are dealing with. This is because they are very vulnerable to accumulating and embodying whatever type of environment they grow in. If there are airborne bugs floating around they can contaminate the cultures.
This is a problem because unfortunately, many people have an overgrowth of Candida and do not yet know it. Actually roughly 90% of people have parasite or bacterial overgrowth! Playing around with wild ferments simply doesn’t make much sense, as they will only weaken an already weakened immune system.
The best way to aid a body with this type of imbalance is to support it with very specific strains of bacteria.
You may be risking the integrity of your gut when you ferment foods with the following:
- A pure salt brine
Culturing is the ideal fermentation process, which involves fermenting food using strain specific bacteria. When purchasing fermented foods or making them at home it’s best to follow these guidelines:
- Use a starter culture or kefir starter that contains specific strains of beneficial bacteria and beneficial yeast. You can purchase these online and some brands of probiotic foods will list if they’ve used them or not.
- Look for foods with added mineral blends. If making yourself, add a pinch of trace minerals, such as fulvic and humic acid or raw sea salt when fermenting. Probiotics “eat” minerals to flourish – they thrive in mineral-rich environments.
Kevita and Body Ecology are two sources high-quality and properly prepared probiotic rich foods. With probiotics on the rise, you may find other sources in health food stores or online. Just be sure to check these guidelines for integrity.
It would be an understatement to say the benefits of fermented foods have a definite beginning and end. The truth is, properly prepared fermented foods benefit the body as a whole, by supporting the immune system.
The immune system controls the genetic operating system, which is the “physiological fate” of our health and wellness. By supporting the immune system we are supporting every physiological function.
That being known, let us take a look at a few common attributes of good health and how the consumption of fermented foods plays a role in benefitting these biomarkers.
- Weight Control – When the gut is wounded, it is an uphill battle to lose weight. Probiotics naturally occurring in fermented foods heal an inflamed gut, which supports natural in balancing an ideal weight. Scientists have been able to identify five ways that gut health influences weight.First, a healthy gut will directly affect the metabolism. It is actually gut bacteria that harvest energy from the food that you eat. Depending on the type of bacteria, some harvest more energy than others.Secondly, gut health is in direct proportion to hormonal balance. Gut bacteria regulate the release of gut hormones. These hormones control blood sugar, encourage satiety, and reduce leaky gut. When our hormones are balanced we don’t overeat, crave sugar foods, or accumulate toxic matter in the intestinal tract.Probiotic foods can also influence our genetics. Your genome helps shape your “inner ecosystem”. For example, genetic mutations that affect levels of the hormone leptin are associated with more fat-forming bacteria and less good-for-you Bifidobacteria. In simple terms, people who are “genetically overweight” are found to have less healthy gut-flora. By increasing beneficial bacteria we can have a positive impact on reversing this.
The fourth way probiotics affect weight is as by working as an anti-inflammatory food. When our gut consists largely of unhealthy bacteria it becomes toxic and triggers a systemic inflammatory response. Typically a person with obesity or metabolic syndrome shows high levels of bacterial toxins.
Lastly, probiotics maintain a strong gut lining. Intestinal inflammation – or leaky gut – drives obesity and problems with blood sugar. Consuming probiotic foods daily can reduce “leakiness” and even improve blood sugar. Once the gut is populated with more healthy bacteria the body naturally drops excess weight. To summarize, a lack of healthy gut-bacteria is often the one obstacle that stands in the way between stubborn fat and a leaner, healthier you.
- Improve Digestion – Most of us know that eating raw vegetables is a smart move in terms of health. While raw foods are loaded with enzymes that aid in digestion, they can be difficult to digest for someone with a weak digestive tract.Raw fermented foods are superior to raw vegetables alone. They contain tenfold the enzymes and are pre-digested by the lactic bacteria produced during fermentation. The friendly flora in them already converted the natural sugars and starches in the vegetables into lactic acid – usually a job of our own saliva and digestive enzymes.In this way, fermented foods work as a digestive aid, providing us with an abundance of live enzymes to aid in the break down of our foods.
- They’re Anti-Aging – One of the secrets to maintaining youth is preserving our energy. We can do this by preserving our enzymatic reserves. The only true anti-aging method to be proven is calorie restriction. However, due to the natural addictive human tendency it’s easy to make calorie restriction an unhealthy thing – starving ourselves is not a healthy solution. By adding in fermented foods, we improve our metabolic efficiency. Meaning, we digest more nutrition and therefore require less food. In simple terms, the less we eat, the more energy we have to live. Digestion takes up a lot of our energy that could be used for generating new hair, skin, brain cells and more. When we consume fermented food, we are preserving our energy by aiding he digestive process with an abundance of enzymes.The more enzymes we have present in the body the more they can be used to restore the body. Enzymes eliminate toxins, rejuvenate cells, and strengthen the immune system – all which aid in a longer, more vibrant life. Read more about this in “10 Foods That Keep You Looking Younger.”
- Control Cravings – Food craving are common amongst the modern world. Food cravings are a common symptom of digestive distress. With roughly 80% of the population struggling with digestive issues, fermented foods could not have regained popularity at a better time. These foods, especially fermented veggies and coconut kefir, have a sour taste that takes away the craving for something sweet. Most of the modern diet consists of two basic flavor profiles, salty and sweet, with not enough spicy, bitter, pungent or sour tastes.Bitter and sour flavors especially – like those found in fermented foods – stimulates the vagus nerve, which tells the liver to produce bile and stomach acid. This eliminates the craving for sweets and also aids in the digestion of proteins and fats.Coconut kefir is especially good for eliminating sugar cravings by providing pseudo sweetness – without the sugar – while simultaneously supporting the liver and kidneys.
Are Fermented Foods For You?
Because digestive issues such are so common not everyone might do well with fermented foods off the bat. Fermented foods contain a compound called histamine. This compound is released from immune cells during an immune system attack.
Histamine is what drives the most common signs of allergies – itchy, red eyes, sneezing, runny nose, and congestion.
While our own cells, belonging to the nervous system and certain gut bacteria also make histamine – all fermented foods contain it as well. If you experience symptoms of allergies there is likely histamine intolerance.
Signs of histamine intolerance:
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Low blood pressure
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Hives or red, itchy skin
In this case, step one is to avoid these foods:
- Alcoholic beverages
- Smoked or partially smoked oily fish (like tuna, sardine, mackerel, and herring)
- Cured meats
- Aged cheese (Parmigiano, gouda, and cheddar)
- Fermented foods, including sauerkraut and young coconut kefir
- Chocolate and vanilla
- Nightshades (Spinach, tomato, and eggplant, cinnamon, chili powder, and cloves)
Though avoiding certain foods will help eliminate a histamine reaction it will not ultimately heal the issue. Histamine is not necessarily a bad thing. The body is smart – it wouldn’t release histamine without also throwing in the enzyme that destroys it. This is the how the body achieves balance or homeostasis.
The enzyme that detoxifies histamine is called, DAO. It breaks down histamine and prevents it from accumulating in the body. DAO is released in the small intestine. A healthy small intestine has satisfactory amounts enzymes that get rid of histamine.
The theory is that anyone suffering from a histamine reaction from food lies in the inability to produce sufficient levels of DAO. There are a few factors that influence DAO activity. For example, menstruation in women, bacterial overgrowth and diet all impact the release of this enzyme.
As we mentioned earlier, a healthy small intestine is full of enzymes that break down histamine. When the small intestine is inflamed or leaky, there is less DAO and more histamine.
The good news is you can boost the levels off DOA through diet. Studies show that the soluble fiber can improve DOA production and protect against leaky gut. Therefore, before you go eating jars of sauerkraut and chugging kefir you will benefit by adding these foods to your diet first:
Soluble Fiber Rich Foods:
- Grain-like seeds, like quinoa, millet, amaranth, and buckwheat
- Ocean vegetables or seaweeds
- Sour fruits, like sour green apples and berries
- Green winter vegetables, like cabbage (check out this yummy fermented cabbage recipe), kale, and broccoli
If you feel that you have developed histamine intolerance or are experiencing allergies, avoiding high-histamine foods could make you feel better. As we discussed it won’t heal the root of the problem. Diet, bacterial balance, the immune system (which lies largely in the gut) all work together. Restoring balance is ultimately more vital than avoiding trigger foods.
Fermented foods are an obviously wonderful healing food. But like anything else, health too has many layers. In order to fully welcome the superpowers of fermented foods into your life consider the guidelines talked about here. If you ultimately strive for balance, these foods can become an integral part of the picture of health. They may even very well be the missing piece to your diet!
Today, 70 million people struggle with digestive issues. Fermented foods are rich in beneficial bacteria that restore balance to the digestive system. Some people underestimate the power of fermented foods and their numerous health benefits. With so many affected by weak digestive fiction, It’s time to get reacquainted with these foods healing properties.