Probiotics are important for so many aspects of health. This article by Dr. Mercola explains the many health benefits one stands to gain from healthy gut bacteria. Ancient people did not take a pill to derive these health benefits. People around the world since ancient times have used fermentation to naturally preserve food before there were refrigerators and canning machines. These methods of preservation naturally enhanced health by introducing friendly organisms into the body and increasing the nutritive value of the food. Sauerkraut, pickles, yogurts and kefirs are probably the most popular but there are many interesting options such as kimchi, fruit relishes and chutneys, lacto-fermented ketchup and mustard, kombucha tea, and much more.
Lacto-fermented or cultured foods are an amazing and cost-effective way to get probiotics into your body while also getting valuable enzymes, vitamins and many other health-promoting compounds. By lacto-fermenting foods, we “predigest” them with good bacteria so that they are often, but not always, better tolerated than the same food in its raw, unfermented state.
In this series of videos (there are six of them so make sure you watch them all!) Donna Gates of Body Ecology Diet and Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride of Gut and Psychology Syndrome discuss the importance of gut flora and fermented foods:
These videos can really inspire one to get started with lacto-fermented foods, and in my opinion they are a must-see for parents and anyone planning on becoming a parent, so please share them with the parents and future parents in your life!
Unfortunately, not everyone tolerates these foods. If you are one of these people, it is usually difficult to discern exactly why you may not be tolerating them, but there are legitimate reasons for some people to pass on the ferments. Some advocates of fermented foods would encourage you to keep at it and push through the reactions, asserting the negative symptoms you are experiencing are just “die-off” or “detox” and a temporary adjustment period. But that is not always the case.
Fermented foods are high in glutamates. In my article Excitotoxicity: When Nourishing Foods Do Harm, I explained how very damaging glutamates can be. If you suffer from some of the symptoms I wrote about there, or from some of the conditions associated with glutamate receptor dysfunction, ferments may be problematic for you.
Fermented foods are high in histamine. In my article Could Histamine Be Sabotaging Your Digestive Health?, I explained how histamine overload can have a negative impact on the gut as well as the rest of the body. The symptoms of histamine intolerance are varied and they may really surprise you. Read my article for more information. In cases of histamine intolerance, fermented foods may cause more issues than they solve.
There are certain conditions under which the fermentation process creates problems. For example, sometimes people are already in a state of “over-fermentation” due to an overgrowth of yeast or bacteria (even good bacteria!), and in that state, fermented foods may not be tolerated. Some types of fermentation, such as “wild fermentation” are believed by some experts to be risky and may be detrimental to certain people. Kombucha is an example of a food produced through wild fermentation. And there are those that believe that lacto-fermentation should always be done under anaerobic conditions, which requires special equipment.
If you do decide to consume fermented foods, you can make them yourself and save a significant amount of money. Just make sure you are doing it correctly. Buy a good book (some are listed below) and learn how to lacto-ferment safely. You can also purchase fermented foods online or at health foods stores. I like to recommend purchasing a few different fermented foods and experimenting with them so that you know what is enjoyed and tolerated before investing your time and money. But by making them yourself you enjoy a significant savings and you can tailor them to your tolerated foods and taste buds.
If you do buy these foods, you definitely want to make sure they are lacto-fermented (not pasteurized or just pickled with vinegar, etc.) and retain their “live cultures” and health benefits. Read labels carefully. For example, Bubbies makes different varieties of pickles. Some of them are lacto-fermented and contain live cultures and some do not.
I think it is important to remember that lacto-fermented foods were traditionally eaten as a condiment. Sometimes we adopt a “more is better” mentality with foods purported to heal, such as broths and ferments. As with everything in life, there is definitely such thing as too much of a good thing.
Sometimes fermented foods are promoted as necessary in order to improve our health to the extent that people feel that they must consume fermented foods despite the unpleasant side-effects. These foods can have tremendous positives but for some people they are not the panacea they are purported to be. If you do not tolerate them, do not despair. I have seen plenty of people improve their health without them.
Speak to your doctor or a qualified health professional to discuss your health conditions and whether lacto-fermented foods are likely to be beneficial or detrimental to your health. If a well-meaning friend encourages you to eat the ferments, pushing through negative symptoms believing they are just “die-off” or “detox” you may want to question the wisdom of their advice and listen instead to the wisdom of your body. It is speaking to you. I hope that this article spoke to you as well, and that it provided a little more insight into a subject that is often misunderstood.