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Gut health: Fermented foods and your microbiome

By CLAUDIA BERMUDEZ-HYUN, The Philippine STAR Published May 17, 2022 5:00 am

One of the most interesting areas of recent nutrition research focuses on the types of microorganisms that are present in our gut. They have a major effect on our overall health and are implicated in a variety of conditions, including gastrointestinal disorders, cardiovascular disease and asthma.

Microbiome refers to the billions of live bacteria we have in our gut with an estimated 35,000 different strains, primarily found in both our large and small intestines, colon, esophagus, and stomach.

The total length of both our small and large intestines is approximately 20 feet and has the surface area of half a badminton court, which is the reason why diet has such a profound impact on our health. The integrity of the gut lining can be compromised if it’s constantly exposed to irritants of diet, environment, or certain medications.

Our gut wellness has implications beyond just healthy digestion, as it affects our mood, immune responses, and predisposition to weight gain and obesity.

Many life factors can help your gut bacteria thrive:

How you were delivered at birth. Babies born via C-section are exposed to different strains of bacteria, as compared to babies born vaginally. Through natural birth, the newborn gets covered in bacteria as it passes through the birth canal, giving it a “brand-new” microbiome. There is some evidence that caesarean births compromise the child’s immune system, resulting in gut conditions such as allergies and asthma.

What you were fed as an infant. Breastfed infants receive more beneficial bacteria from their mothers than formula-fed babies.

Your diet as an adult. Diet determines the types of bacteria that will thrive in your body. Even a brief change in regime has shown to alter and destabilize gut balance. Plant-based diets are particularly supportive of the beneficial organisms in the gut.

How many antibiotics you take. Antibiotics work by killing bacteria — this is effective when you’re sick and need help killing the bad bacteria that’s making you ill, but in accomplishing this, they destroy the good bacteria. Even one dose of an antibiotic can wipe out microbial diversity for up to one month. Antibiotics are necessary at times, but you need to give yourself a little extra care after your treatment by consuming high pre- and pro-biotic foods and supplements to repopulate your bacilli.

Your genes. Although much of our gut health has to do with environmental factors, some aspects of the microbiome could be inherited.

Fermented foods and gut health

Kimchi: The process to make kimchi begins with brining or salting the vegetables to draw out the water, which aids in the preservation and allows the seasonings to easily penetrate. Then, the vegetables are fermented by lactic acid bacteria. This Korean dish is loaded with nutrients, vitamins, minerals and delicious spicy flavors that marries well with any type of Asian food.

Scientists are discovering that fermented foods may have highly beneficial effects on our gastrointestinal functioning. New research published by Stanford University confirms that the more fermented foods people consume, the greater the number of microbial species appear and reproduce in our gut, and higher levels of microbiome diversity are generally considered to be a good thing. Studies link it to lower rates of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic disease and other ailments.

Sauerkraut: Probably the most well-known lacto-fermented vegetable. It's made traditionally with thinly sliced cabbage and salt.

The key element here is diversity. The higher the assortment, the better it is in terms of protecting against inflammation. Foods such as kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, kombucha and fermented cottage cheese increase the heterogeneity of gut microbes leading to lower levels of inflammation. “This is a stunning finding,” said Justin Sonnenburg, PhD, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University. “It provides one of the first examples of how a simple change in diet can reproducibly remodel the microbiota across a cohort of healthy adults.”

Kombucha: Fermented drink made with tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast that can help your digestion, rids your body of toxins, and boosts your energy.

Suzanne Devkota, director of Microbiome Research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, often recommends that patients who have conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease eat a high-fiber diet of vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains and fermented foods to help alleviate symptoms and strengthen the immune system.

Tempeh: A traditional Indonesian food made from soybeans that have been fermented, or broken down by microorganisms. Following fermentation, the soybeans are pressed into a compact cake commonly consumed as a vegetarian source of protein.

One reason fermented foods may be beneficial is because the microorganisms they contain are constantly producing many nutrients during the fermentation process. “A jar of sauerkraut is living food,” says Dr. Devkota. “When you eat a fermented food, you’re consuming all of those microbial-produced chemicals that are highly beneficial.”

Our gut wellness has implications beyond just healthy digestion, as it affects our mood, immune responses, and predisposition to weight gain and obesity.

Both probiotics and prebiotics help support gut health in different ways.

Sourdough is a type of bread made by the fermentation of dough using wild lactobacillaceae and yeast. It is easier to digest than white bread, has a lower glycemic index and it’s a good choice for gluten-sensitivity.

Probiotics. These types of bacteria are consumed through our diet (or through supplements) containing strains such as bifidobacterium and lactobacillus. These can be found in: kefir, tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut and kambucha. Benefits include lower risk of depression and anxiety, and reduced circulation of the stress hormone cortisol.

Kefir: A staple food in many cultures around the globe, it has become incredibly popular in the natural health community. High in nutrients and probiotics, it's very beneficial for digestion.

Prebiotics. These are particular fiber sources that ferment in the gut itself, thus creating beneficial bioactive compounds. They include foods such as: asparagus leeks, chicory root, onions, garlic barley, quinoa and sourdough. Benefits include reduced risk of obesity and an increase in our immune function.

There are many online recipes for delicious, homemade fermented foods. Some recommended books are: Traditional Fermented Foods by Shannon Stonger, Ferment Your Vegetables by Amanda Feifer, Asian Pickles by Karen Salomon and The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz.

What to read: There are many online recipes for delicious, homemade fermented foods. Traditional Fermented Foods by Shannon Stonger, Ferment your Vegetables by Amanda Feifer, Asian Pickles by Karen Salomon and The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz.

A word of caution: certain fermented foods are not recommended for pregnant womenchildren under the age of one year, or anyone who is immune-compromised. Fermenting does not remove gluten, soy, or dairy allergens so take note if you are allergic or sensitive to these ingredients. Fermented foods also tend to be high in histamine, so if you’re sensitive to this enzyme, limit intake and avoid eating large servings.

The bottom line is to colonize your gut with a wide variety of good bacteria. Introduce fermented foods into your diet. The more, the merrier.