Incorporating Fermented Foods Into Your Diet.

Dr. Alison Danby, ND & Paula Porter, Nutritionist

Our gut microbiome is getting a lot of attention these days.  While research is ongoing, it is widely held that the bacteria that populate’s our gut is absolutely critical for the functioning of our body as a whole.  Our digestive centre is also the seat of our immune system, and the microbes living in our gut communicate efficiently with our nervous system (have you heard that our gut is often referred to as our “second brain”?).  Beneficial bacteria play a significant role in fighting infection;  modulate the immune system; improve the digestive process; and have anti-inflammatory properties among other things.  

Unfortunately, most people have an imbalance between healthy microflora and pathogenic microorganisms, setting the stage for illness and disease.  Antibiotic use, birth control, parasites, impaired digestion, poor diet and even stress can alter our gut bacteria.  When we are out of balance and we don’t get friendly bacteria in our foods, we start to see symptoms appear.  Some of these symptoms can be:

  • Ongoing digestive disturbances like constipation, bloating and heartburn;
  • Anxiety and depression;
  • Brain fog;
  • Skin eruptions or rashes;
  • Newly developing allergies to food or environment;
  • Repeated colds and flu;
  • Unexplained weight gain or the inability to lose weight.
  • Even as severe as an Autoimmune Condition

For people living with autoimmune conditions, increasing the health of the microbiome can make a huge difference in symptom expression and day to day life. Dietary change can be overwhelming when you are living with autoimmune.  The amazing thing is that small dietary changes can bring amazing reward.  Incorporating gut-friendly cultured or fermented foods into the diet can bring about big health benefits.  Fermented foods have been present in most native and traditional diets for good reason.  Eating fermented foods promotes good health and packs a nutritional punch. Studies show that probiotics fare better in the stomach when they are consumed in the form of a fermented food or drink. (1) Consuming beneficial bacteria can alter and support imbalanced gut bacteria.  Individuals with autoimmune conditions often have underlying issues that can further hamper the gut microbiome:  unchecked inflammation, bacterial overgrowth, and candida to name a few.  

If you are new to fermented foods, it is important to start slowly. These foods are powerful detoxifiers, and eating too much too quickly can lead to digestive disturbances like bloating or gas, especially if your gut flora is significantly imbalanced.  Start with a ½ cup of fermented vegetables or 2 oz. of kombucha or non-dairy kefir is a good start.  It is possible to experience symptoms of “die off” as the “bad guys” (parasites, pathogenic bacteria, candida) die off and leave your body.  As your body adjusts to these fermented foods, consider adding an additional serving in your day.  Including fermented vegetables in every meal will support digestive health and well being.  Listen to your body.  As with anything, you can overdo it with fermented foods.  If you experience negative side effects, slow down on your consumption!

Choose a fermented food that resonates with your tastes.  If you love fizzy drinks, try kombucha.  If you are a fan of Asian flavours, kimchi could be a winner for you.  If memories of hot dogs with sauerkraut make you nostalgic, eat sauerkraut.  It is ideal to include a variety of fermented foods and beverages in your diet because each food will inoculate your gut with a mix of different microorganisms. There are many fermented foods you can easily make at home or buy in your grocery store, including:

  • Cultured vegetables
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Cultured dairy, such as yogurt and kefir (if you tolerate dairy- for people with Autoimmune please use coconut based)
  • Fish, such as mackerel and Swedish gravlax (though watch for high salt and other ingredients)

Importantly, when buying fermented foods you must be on the lookout for a few things.  A good quality fermented food will be found in the fridge, not on the shelf!  Items kept out of the fridge will have been pasteurized at high temperatures.  Pasteurized foods contain no beneficial bacteria, as heat will kill bacteria and they may have added the bacterial back in later, however that process is not ideal.  Look for the word “raw”, or “unpasteurized” when shopping.  Another thing to avoid is vinegar, often added to “fermented foods” as a preservative.  Vinegar has no place in a quality fermented food.  If you follow AIP, make sure to check labels for seeds: fennel and mustard seed are frequently found in pickles and onions.  Remember, pickling is not the same thing as fermenting.  

Most people who start to eat fermented foods quickly become fermentation fanatics!  You may find that your kombucha obsession starts to get expensive.  Luckily, fermented foods are easy and inexpensive to make at home.  Fermentation is fashionable right now, and finding a workshop or online instruction is simple.  

It is important to note that fermented foods can be a part of any healing journey, but people with candida or SIBO (small bacterial overgrowth) do need to go slow with these foods.  If you experience significant and painful gas and bloating and you do not adapt over a few days that could be a sign that your bacterial balance is out off, you may need to address that before you add fermented foods in.

  1. 3. T. Faye, et al. Survival of lactic acid bacteria from fermented milks in an in vitro digestion model exploiting sequential incubation in human gastric and duodenum juice J. Dairy Sci. 2012; 95 (2). DOI: 10.3168/jds.2011-4705