Fermented Foods - How to Supercharge Your Nutrition, Fine-Tune Your Gut and Possibly Even Extend Your Life
IF Insider No. 51
In our last issue (IF Insider No. 50) we examined physical balance and why maintaining and improving it is an essential part of wellbeing. In this issue, we are going to look at a group of foods that have the potential to supercharge your nutrition as well as your intermittent fasting practice.
For our premium subscribers, in this week’s Research Spotlight, we will take a look at an exciting clinical trial that examines the role of a diet high in fermented foods and its effects on the microbiome as well as inflammation.
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Why Fermented Foods Are So Good For You And How To Add Them To Your Diet
A fermented food is simply a food produced or preserved by the action of microorganisms.
We know that people across the globe in what are called Blue Zones eat certain kinds of foods, including fermented foods as part of their secrets to health and longevity.
The Blue Zones are five areas in the world where people are more likely to live past their 100th birthday: Okinawa - Japan, Sardinia - Italy, Nicoya - Costa Rica, Ikaria - Greece, and Loma Linda - California. But even more impressive perhaps than their age, is the Blue Zone residents’ quality of life, as they have a significantly lower risk of cancer, heart attack and strokes, dementia and osteoporosis than people living in the U.S.
People in the Blue Zones eat very little meat with mostly a plant-based diet (95 to 100%) consisting of vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, olive oil, dairy products such as grass-fed goat’s milk and cheese, some fish and eggs, and whole grains and organic corn and fermented foods.
People in these Blue Zones all eat fermented foods, but because they are so widely scattered around the globe they don’t all eat the same fermented foods. For example, people in one of the Blue Zones located in Japan eat miso, tempeh, and natto while people in the Blue Zones of Italy eat goat’s milk, not as a liquid but fermented as yogurt, sour milk, and cheese.
One of the primary benefits of eating fermented foods is that it is helpful to our gut microbiota. So let’s look a bit more closely at this concept:
What exactly is the gut microbiome? The gut microbiome is the totality of all the microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi plus their collective genetic material which is present in the GI tract. The gut microbiota is made up of all the bacteria both commensal and pathogenic, residing in your GI tract.
Commensal just means the bacteria are living in our guts and are deriving benefits but are not harming us and the pathogenic bacteria are living there and are harming us or have the potential to harm us.
There are a lot of factors that go into determining what sort of gut microbiomes a person has had including where you live, how you were born (vaginal delivery vs C-section), whether you were breast or bottle-fed, your age, what drugs you might be taking especially antibiotics, and of course our diets.
The gut microbiota and your immune system engage in a kind of crosstalk. Studies show that…” the gut microbiota occupies a critical functional fulcrum within this human “super-organism,” regulating both metabolic and inflammatory processes which not only appear to mediate chronic disease especially metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cardiovascular disease but also autoimmune diseases and dementia and possibly the aging processes itself.
Our gut microbiota helps us absorb nutrients and minerals, synthesize enzymes, vitamins and amino acids and produce short chain fatty acids. Fermentation byproducts of these bacteria provide certain chemicals that are important for our gut health and also provide energy for epithelial cells, help keep our intestinal barrier strong and provide us with protection against pathogens. There is ongoing research that suggests these non-pathogenic bacteria can help our immune systems recover from diseases caused by pathogens.
The development of our gut microbiomes and maintenance of its balance is affected by several things including infant feeding methods, exposure to the environment, stress, diet, medications, age, and any diseases you may be living with.
Dysbiosis is a condition in which the numbers, as well as the diversity of commensal bacteria, decline. When this happens there appears to be an increase in chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome leading to Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even cancer.
One of the most fascinating things about the gut microbiome is that it plays a guiding role in the maturing and function of our immune systems. Plus the gut microbiota (the bacteria) forms an interactive system with the gut, and central nervous system which occurs via various signals including nerve connections, hormonal signals, immunological signals, and nutrient signals.
It’s well established now that gut bacteria play a major role in anxiety and depressive disorders. Serotonin is one of the most well-known brain neurotransmitters but it’s estimated that a full 90% of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut. Even people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have been shown to have gut inflammation and increased GI permeability or leaky gut.
One of the most effective ways we can bring our gut microbiomes back into balance is through what we eat. Good bacteria in our GI tracts helps to break down the complex carbs that we eat plus this breakdown results in byproducts that are also beneficial to our bodies.
We are constantly ingesting bad disease-causing bacteria but we don’t always get sick from them thank goodness. That’s because our good bacteria create these acidic fermentation byproducts that work to lower the pH of our intestines and decrease the chance that the bad bacteria can survive. These good bacteria also secrete antimicrobial proteins and help kill off the pathogens plus they compete for the food supply and so-called squatting rights for space in the lining of your intestine.
They can also help to re-establish gut health after you have taken antibiotics, which can upset the microbiome in the gut. These good gut bacteria also produce many of the vitamins our bodies need including B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, and vitamin K.
One of the things that these good bacteria (called probiotics) need is pre-biotics, the food that the bacteria actually need to thrive and that comes in the form of soluble fiber found in such foods as oats, beans, and oranges. People in the Blue Zones eat a serving of beans daily which are high in soluble fiber. Whole grains, even though they have a lot of fiber in them, don’t have as much soluble fiber as beans.
Different fermented foods have different probiotic profiles, so be sure to eat a variety of fermented foods to make sure you are getting a wide range of beneficial bacteria.
There is an article on Wikipedia that lists and describes 150 fermented foods from around the world and it’s fascinating to look at all the different foods from different cultures. We are most familiar with and have the most access to foods like Korean kimchi, the drink kombucha which is a fermented sweet tea, sauerkraut, miso, fermented vegetables such as carrots, beet kvass, miso, tempeh, kefir, buttermilk, yogurt, cheeses and even salt fermented fruits such as lacto fermented cranberries I made last Thanksgiving and I have also done moon drop grapes this way which were delicious.
We hope this has given you a new appreciation of the gut microbiome and how we are just beginning to understand the way it interfaces with our bodies to enhance our health when it’s balanced and strong. Plus, I hope you will add more fermented foods to your diet and also more prebiotic foods to give the probiotic bacteria the food in the form of soluble fiber they need to thrive.
Why It Matters
To ferment something is to invest not only in a project, but in your own future. That's what it was. That's why it kept people alive. And I think that's a value that no company could ever sell someone: it's something that has to be undertaken yourself.
~ David Wilber - Chef, fermenter, food scientist, New York Times best-selling author, and co-author of The NOMA Guide to Fermentation.
What We Are Reading 📚
With each issue, we bring you a short blurb on what we are currently reading or watching, including books, articles, podcasts, videos, movies, and research papers of value.
Denise - I subscribe to a newsletter, also published on Substack, called From Brain to Mind. Because we talk a lot about brain and cognitive health in our Fast Factor Circle group, I recently shared this article with them, and now with you, too…
Ellen - If you want to dig a lot deeper into fermentation that’s way beyond sauerkraut I highly recommend reading the NOMA Guide to Fermentation. This book is put out by the chef and staff of NOMA, a very unusual restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark that has won the title of best restaurant in the world multiple times.
The chef Rene Redziki and his fermenting master David Zilber have a lot of videos online and they have presented seminars and spoken at venues around the world. Here they are talking about fermentation on The Splendid Table:
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